Research in Safety, Organization, and Human Resources : a new 5-year contract for the RESOH Chaire

The RESOH "chaire"(French research consortium), hosted by IMT Atlantique, has signed a third five-year agreement with Naval Group, with the CEA as new partner. This research program deals with issues related to "safe industrial performance", especially in the field of nuclear power. Stéphanie Tillement, professor of sociology at IMT Atlantique, describes the program.

The RESOH Chaire, "Research in Safety, Organization and Human Resources", hosted by IMT Atlantique, has just been renewed for a third 5-year phase. What issues will the chaire deal with?

Two partners, Naval Group and the CEA (1), have committed to a 5 year contract, until the end of 2028. A third partner may join at a later date. RESOH is a research and teaching chaire that investigates the relationship between work organization, industrial control and safety in high-risk industries — especially the nuclear field. Rather than approaching safety as an isolated issue, we consider it in relation with the challenges of industrial performance (the traditional 'cost, deadlines, quality',etc.,view). Hence the emergence of the concept of "safe industrial performance". How and to what extent is it possible, in day-to-day work and over the long term, to maintain or even improve performance and, at the same time, control risks?
Furthermore, research has shown that the key to safety often lies in the intersections within and between organizations. We therefore adopt an approach focusing on relationships, paying close attention to the quality of interactions: between professional groups, between organizations ("prime contractor" and subcontractors in particular), but also the connections between different types and levels of expectations. We explore the mechanisms that foster coordination, and identify the means and instruments that either facilitate or hinder it.

The Chaire was launched in 2012 with Orano, Naval Group and IRSN (2), and was joined by Andra in 2017. What are the reasons behind the Chaire's long-term commitment?

That's a question for our partners to answer. Personally, I've noticed a high level of general and topical concern about the subjects we deal with. Our distinctive position is also important: few chaires indeed cover these issues from the perspective of work organization. When it comes to safety, much of the research focuses on crisis management. Our approach is different.

What are the "guidelines" of your research ?

We believe that safety is a matter of "ordinary" work situations. On a day-to-day basis, it relies first and foremost on the ability for organizations to "take care" of themselves and their surroundings: workers, of course, but also machinery, facilities, infrastructures, etc. Although innovation and "novelty" are often emphasized, both safety and performance depend, to a large extent, on the ability to consolidate solid, tried and tested processes and practices. This is why the maintenance function has such a key role to play. This is also the topic of a recent book, "Le soin des choses" (3) [taking care of things], written by colleagues from Mines Paris-PSL and the CNRS. Our aim is to understand how safety is rooted in day-to-day operations — which can be an enigma for industrial operators — and how organizational processes enable — or not — to "take care" of both "things" and people. These two issues are intertwined. It is our hypothesis that "care" practices foster performance and safety, but that they can be weakened by transformations in organization and work, such as the much-discussed forms of "bureaucratization" and "organizational complexity". Our research focuses on the reality of this situation: is it something that can be objectified, and what are its sources, effects and limits?

Stéphanie et Geoffrey de la chaire Resoh 3
Stéphanie Tillement et Geoffrey Leuridan

Compared to the first two phases of the RESOH Chaire, what are the new issues of the RESOH 3 program ?

Between 2012 and 2022, our research was centered on three themes: managing complex projects, monitoring subcontracting relationships, and the relationship between supervisors and supervised. For this third phase, the organizational dimension will remain central, with an emphasis on the subject of skills.

Does your research relate to topical and current issues? Or does it focus more on theory?

Of course, the concerns of our industrial partners — and therefore the latest issues in the nuclear industry — have to be taken into account. The aftermath of the Fukushima accident and questions raised by the nuclear industry's renewed programs are at the forefront of our analysis. The feedback on EPR projects and power plants — maintenance and extension operating life — is also part of our research material. Climate, sovereignty and reindustrialization issues have also become increasingly significant. All these topical issues raise new questions. For example, how many different forms of safety need to be guaranted at the same time (nuclear safety, workplace safety, environmental safety or security of energy supply, to mention just a few)? How does this lead to cumulative risk situations that arise, requiring new forms of arbitrage (avoiding "over-safety", or giving priority to one form of safety at the expense of others)?
We are also addressing the issue of preserving skills and maintaining the industrial network. How do we "relearn skills" that have been lost — sometimes without realizing their loss? This involves both business skills (welding, engineering, etc.) and cross-functional skills (project management, for example). How can we attract and train new staff, including operators, technicians and engineers? How do we maintain and adapt knowledge? We also explore the relationship between human resources management (HRM), which tends to focus on the individuals, and a more collective and dynamic skills approach, centered on work organization and professions.

Will your research provide any recommendations for industry stakeholders?

RESOH is a research chaire. We do not work as a consulting team. The aim is not to provide generic recommendations or prescriptions, but rather to draw lessons that can be contextualized and generalized, useful for Chaire members and for industrial operators. First and foremost, we intend to create knowledge and contribute to the scientific debate. But the question of the appropriation of research results by our partners, at both strategic and operational levels, is an important one. This explains our commitment to developing, in collaboration with our partners, processes that can capitalize on the chaire's expertise, in order to enhance the robustness and resilience of our practices and organizations. These dynamics of co-construction and cross-fertilization are part of the appropriation process, but they require a strong and constant commitment from researchers and partners alike.

Could your research be applicable to other industrial sectors than the nuclear industry?

It's often argued that the nuclear industry is quite different from other sectors — more complex, involving higher risks, with a longer time-scale... But our approach could also be applied to other sectors. The aeronautics industry, for example, has a number of similarities: complex projects, a high level of technical expertise, a strategic stake for the country, numerous subcontractors, skills as a key issue, etc.. Sectors such as Space, the construction industry or health sector can also be mentioned.

How will the Chaire be funded and what human and financial resources will be available?

The Chaire is managed by two researchers from IMT Atlantique, working in the "Social and Management Sciences" department, Geoffrey Leuridan and myself. A fellow professor from IAE Lille, Frédéric Garcias, is also working on the project. We plan to hire two PhD students and a research engineer. The total budget is 800,000 euros over five years.

Does the research carried out by the Chaire have an impact on students?

Indeed, it does, at two levels. The training of engineering students is a highly topical issue — especially at a time when the nuclear industry is being reactivated. The institution is very much involved in this field, notably with the SUBATECH laboratory (UMR 6457). The research we carry out feeds into the training programs offered at IMT Atlantique — especially in the field of nuclear industry. In addition, our partners are involved in our training courses — either through the collaborative conception of teaching programs, or through direct participation in our classes. Not to mention the fact that these classes can evolve into advanced professional training courses... and help to promote the appropriation of research work.

(1) Commissariat à l’énergie atomique - French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission
(2) Institut supérieur de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire - French Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Institute
(3) « Le soin des choses », Jérôme Denis, professor of sociology at Mines Paris-PSL and David Pontille, research director at CNRS. Ed. La Découverte.


Published on 13.01.2024

by Marine VASLIN

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