Jeff Miller: Leading organizational change in safety and security culture
What do the Space Shuttle Challenger crash, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the Fukushima Daiichi reactor failure have in common?
According to ORAU's Dr. Jeff Miller, the investigation reports for these events all pointed to failures in safety culture as one of the contributing factors.
He has led workplace safety and security culture evaluations for more than 35 organizations across the country and began researching safety culture in 2011 for a project in Oak Ridge. After a customer received a negative evaluation of their safety culture, they approached Miller to help them better understand contributing factors and provide recommendations for improvement.
“Up until that assignment, I had a lot of experience with health and safety program implementation and had 10 years of senior management experience, but evaluating organizational culture was a new subject to me. I just dove into it,” Miller said.
With Miller’s background in behavioral sciences, safety and business management, his team developed the means and methods to evaluate the workforce’s perception of safety culture. Results in hand, the team immediately moved into action developing various interventions designed to improve the safety culture for this organization.
Miller didn’t know it yet, but he and his team were pioneering research practices in a field that has matured to include the broader study of organizational culture. And, he quickly learned that other organizations and facilities were in need of his safety and security evaluation services.
“A person’s perceptions influence his or her attitude, which impacts behavior, which drives performance. It’s a chain of events that affects the performance of the entire organization,” Miller explained. “When I paint that picture to executives, they see how shaping their culture in a positive way can contribute to improved organizational performance.”
Today, Miller focuses on evaluating organizations that perform highly hazardous work, including businesses in the nuclear industry. Businesses in this market deal with hazardous materials and face serious consequences if they experience a slip in safety performance.
“These businesses must be highly reliable and maintain safety as the overriding concern,” Miller said.
In cases where a disaster causes mass casualties, such as the nuclear accident in Fukushima, or has other devastating mass effects, such as the environmental disaster caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, incident investigations are quick to follow in the accident’s aftermath. Investigators often find that the precursors for these situations are related to management decision making, a breakdown in communication or insufficient management of change—all factors that can be revealed through Miller’s safety culture surveys.
“There are generally two types of organizations that seek safety culture evaluations,” Miller said. “One is the organization that is in trouble following a serious incident. The other is the high-performance organization that doesn’t have any immediate issues, but their senior management understands that avoiding issues is a result of consistently improving their safety culture.”
Years after his first evaluation, Miller continues to work with the Department of Energy and commercial nuclear facilities at locations across the United States including South Carolina, New Mexico, Texas, California, Idaho, Washington and Tennessee. Sites such as these use the results of Miller’s evaluations as a barometer for their current safety climate and to prevent little problems from becoming big ones. By developing rigorous scientific survey methods and providing actionable recommendations, Miller has become a leader in this field. He speaks at national conferences and has co-authored guides on best practices for safety culture evaluations for the Energy Facility Contractors Group, which has largely contributed to standardizing the industry’s evaluation process.
Over the years Miller has watched not only this field of research evolve, but now organizational leaders have come to know what to expect in a safety and security culture evaluation. He believes that this research will continue to shift toward organizational behavior and performance excellence studies. Regardless where the industry moves, Miller emphasizes that even as a leader in this research, there’s room for growth and improvement.
“We’re skilled and efficient in the execution of our safety and security culture evaluations, but we have to continue to get better all the time,” Miller said. “It’s up to us to continue to evolve and lead in this research to promote the health and safety of workers and the public.”
25,000 nuclear workers surveyed on safety cultures in their workplaces
ORAU has performed periodic, comprehensive evaluations of nuclear industry workforces and practices in an effort to monitor and continuously improve safety culture.
Jeffrey R. Miller, Ph.D., CIH, CSP
Senior Scientist and Head of ORAU’s Center for Safety Studies
Expertise: Occupational exposure assessment, safety culture evaluation, chronic beryllium disease worker protection programs
- Chair, American Board of Industrial Hygiene, 2017-2018
- Keynote speaker, International Symposium on Beryllium Particles and Detection, November 2017
- Co-author, “Guide to Monitoring and Improving Safety Cultures,” Energy Facilities Contractors Group, April 2017
- Team member, design team for $6.5B Uranium Processing Facility Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee
- Presenter, American Industrial Hygiene Association, Fall Leadership Conference, October 2017
- 14 years of senior leadership experience; six years as a CEO