AIM: The aim of this paper is to review key theories of risk and safety and their implications for nursing. BACKGROUND: The concept of of patient safety has only recently risen to prominence as an organising principle in healthcare. The paper considers the wider social context in which contemporary concepts of risk and safety have developed. In particular it looks at sociological debates about the rise of risk culture and the risk society and their influence on the patient safety movement. KEY ISSUES: The paper discusses three bodies of theory which have attempted to explain the management of risk and safety in organisations: normal accident theory, high reliability theory, and grid-group cultural theory. It examine debates between these theories and their implications for healthcare. It discusses reasons for the dominance of high reliability theory in healthcare and its strengths and limitations. CONCLUSION: The paper suggest that high reliability theory has particular difficulties in explaining some aspects of organisational culture. It also suggest that the implementation of high reliability theory in healthcare has involved over reliance on numerical indicators. It suggests that patient safety could be improved by openness to a wider range of theoretical perspectives.
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