Safety culture

Why do organizations repeat safety mistakes? Researchers weigh in

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Austin, TX – A group of researchers is contesting the prevailing, black-and-white notion that organizations either learn from past safety mistakes or do not.

Researchers from the University of Texas-Austin offer evidence pointing to a gray zone: Organizations exhibit cycles of learning and forgetting of safety lessons following previous incidents, researchers say, and periods of weakened focus on safety may lead to increased risks.

The researchers analyzed 146 pharmaceutical organizations as part of the study. One-third of the organizations experienced a “serious drug error” between 1997 and 2004. Evidence showed that the organizations increased safety measures such as drug testing and decreased innovation measures such as patent applications following an incident, but the trend declined over time. Organizations struggle to give equal focus to safety and non-safety innovations, researchers say.

“What we have found is that organizations manage these conflicting goals by oscillating between them,” study co-author Francisco Polidoro, of UT-Austin’s McCombs School of Business, said in a press release. “One [goal] isn’t necessarily better than the other, but there has to be a compromise.”

Several factors were cited as to why organizations might forget safety lessons and repeat mistakes. Those factors include employee turnover, complacency that can develop over the course of an extended incident-free period, staff reorganization or changes in leadership.

“A period of no serious errors is not justification for weakening focus on safety,” Polidoro continued in the release. “We need to make safety more salient in organizational decisions rather than only caring about pushing new products to market, for example. Being aware of our tendency to forget should inform our actions to sustain our focus on safety.”

The study was published in the journal Organization Science.

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