In this post we give an introduction discussing the safety culture of an aircraft maintenance organization.
Safety culture is speciﬁcally related to the development and growth phase of the organization and explicitly relates safety culture to production interests. The analysis focuses on the various roles and the tensions between the quality assurance and maintenance management departments, and the way aircraft maintenance technicians (AMTs) in practice deal with tensions between safety and production interests. Theoretically this article stresses the value of a process view on organizational development for the analysis of safety culture and the relationship between safety and economic interests.
Aviation is closely associated with safety culture, not so much because of a high rate of incidents but rather because of the severe consequences in case something goes wrong. Travel at high speeds and high altitudes in complex trafﬁc systems means that even small human and technical errors can quickly lead to disasters.
Air trafﬁc involves a typical case of low probability/high consequence risks, and aircraft manufacturers and airline companies do what they can to prevent accidents and safety incidents from occurring.
As a rule, such organizations claim to put ‘safety ﬁrst’. Safety should also be regarded as crucial for the reputation of such organizations. Companies involved in the manufacturing, operation and maintenance of aircraft therefore heavily invest in safety measures and carefully guard their safety image, implementing systems such as fire extinguisher inspection systems and life safety inspection systems to aid compliance. However, ‘safety’ is not an objectively given condition, but rather a socially constructed and relative organizational property dependent upon organizational values, meanings and safety practices (Gherardi et al., 1998, p. 143;Richter and Koch, 2004).
Organizations may indeed put ‘safety ﬁrst’, but what this means in practice may depend on the technology at hand, the kind of organization and the changing market conditions under which these organizations operate. Because of the comparatively high levels of risk awareness and preventive measures airlines and other organizations in the ﬁeld of aviation can be regarded as so called ‘high-reliability organizations (HRO) (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001). As we can learn from TV series such as ‘Seconds from disaster’ and ‘Air crash investigation’, it is by now part of popular understanding that accidents in today’s HROs are not caused by a single mechanical or human failure. Extensive researches into disasters such as the nuclear melt down at Chernobyl (Reason, 1998), the Boeing 747 collision at Tenerife (Weick, 1990) or the explosion of space shuttle Challenger (Vaughan, 1998), typically focus on the chains of events which caused these disasters. When such disasters are studied more closely, organizational problems are often revealed as being part of the causal chain of events. Indeed, in safety studies there has been a shift away from individual factors that might be responsible for accidents towards organizational factors (Kingma, 2008; Chang and Wang, 2010).
Safety culture should be regarded as the organizational dimension par excellence for addressing safety in HRO’s because this concept explicitly refers to the way safety issues are handled in organizations (Pidgeon and O’Leary, 1994; Richter and Koch, 2004). Aircraft maintenance is generally regarded as crucial for aircraft safety (McDonald et al., 2000). At the same time aircraft maintenance is a remarkably under researched link in the overall system for ensuring safety in aviation. Of course, the maintenance records are immediately checked in case of aircraft accidents, but apart from these after the fact investigations and regulatory monitoring, maintenance organizations are usually hidden from public view and only indirectly known to social scientists.
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