Organisational Drift – the gradual erosion of safety standards has been a topic of increasing concern within the nuclear industry, due in part to a series of high profile events across industries (e.g. the Columbia space shuttle accident, BP Texas City refinery and the Buncefield storage depot). In each case, up to the time of the event, the organisation was perceived as having good safety performance and was operating in a mature safety management regime.

Many of the high hazard industries are recognising that gradual degradation in organisational performance can take place without apparently being noticed – or at least, not triggering a level of organisational attention that is appropriate to the message the degradation is sending. Plenty of examples exist across different industries where the gradual erosion of safety performance appeared never to breach a threshold of organisational consciousness, until a major accident or near miss made everyone sit up and take notice. This phenomenon is called “organisational drift”.

Greenstreet Berman drew upon their breadth of experience of working within many high hazard industries, to carry out a detailed review of high profile accidents and incidents that appear to have demonstrated aspects of organisational drift ­ from both within and outside the nuclear industry – and considered additional accident reviews, to identify organisational factors affecting drift. Additionally, several selected oversight (monitoring) approaches used by the UK nuclear industry were reviewed to determine how well they might address aspects of organisational drift.

This information was then used to develop a model representing organisational and external factors that can affect drift. From this model an assessment of potential defences was undertaken to determine how organisations within the nuclear industry manage organisational drift.

The work provided senior managers and inspectors within the UK nuclear industry with a clear understanding of “organisational drift” and a set of practical steps that could defend against it.

Our work suggests that the concept and management of organisational drift within the high hazard industries, has positive benefits for the safety of the workforce and the public.

Potential defences include: