Objectives This study investigated the formal and informal ways pre-registration students from medicine, nursing, physiotherapy and pharmacy learn about keeping patients safe. This paper gives an overview of the study and explores findings in relation to organizational context and culture. Methods The study employed a phased design using multiple qualitative methods. The overall approach drew on ‘illuminative evaluation’. Ethical approval was obtained. Phase 1 employed a convenience sample of 13 pre-registration courses across the UK. Curriculum documents were gathered, and course directors interviewed. Phase 2 used eight case studies, two for each professional group, to develop an in-depth investigation of learning across university and practice by students and newly-qualified practitioners in relation to patient safety, and to examine the organizational culture that students and newly-qualified staff are exposed to. Analysis was iterative and ongoing throughout the study, using frameworks agreed by all researchers. Results Patient safety was felt to have become a higher priority for the health care system in recent years. Incident reporting was a key feature of the patient safety agenda within the organizations examined. Staff were often unclear or too busy to report. On the whole, students were not engaged and may not be aware of incident reporting schemes. They may not have access to existing systems in their organization. Most did not access employers' induction programmes. Some training sessions occasionally included students but this did not appear to be routine. Conclusions Action is needed to develop an efficient interface between employers and education providers to develop up-to-date curricula for patient safety.