Culture – the key to sustainable process safety performance

What is culture? Some companies wonder why they keep experiencing the same process safety problems. Others wonder why they have plateaued in process safety performance. Culture is KEY. It is the individual and organizational 'DNA' that represents our tendency to want to do (1) the right thing (2) in the right way (3) at the right time, (4) ALL the time – even when no one is looking.

The safety culture that exists in a plant or company is the result of all the actions - and inactions - in institutional/ workforce memory.

Many facilities use management systems to help control risks of hazardous processes. These management systems are operated by people – people whose inherent attitudes about safety can affect the choices they make in operating these systems and, thus, the overall safety performance of the facility.


Industry has established attributes of a good process safety culture. Focusing on these features allows a company to evaluate existing safety culture and determine how best to improve it.
1. Establish safety as a core value
2. Provide strong leadership
3. Establish and enforce high standards of performance
4. Formalize the safety culture approach
5. Maintain a sense of vulnerability
6. Empower individuals to successfully fulfill their safety responsibilities
7. Defer to expertise
8. Ensure open and effective communications
9. Establish a questioning/learning environment
10. Foster mutual trust
11. Provide timely response to safety issues and concerns
12. Provide continuous monitoring of performance


Process safety culture is hard to measure and more difficult to change. There are few direct indicators of culture, and because of its nature, it cannot be evaluated very frequently. Typical ways to get a handle on process safety culture are:
- Employee surveys
- Interviews
- Work observations
- Process safety leading indicator metrics

Based on lessons from conducting the Baker Panel evaluation, ABS Consulting has devised a formal approach for connecting process safety and EHS performance outcomes to culture. This performance assurance review (PAR) approach consists of the following steps at a facility:
- Develop a current 'safety performance picture' and assessing the 'historical performance movie'
- Understand employee opinions about safety culture issues
- Map these results to the 12 culture features
- Address technical, management system and underlying cultural issues to create sustainable, improved process safety performance

Companies can perform a PAR at a single facility, but the results will be more robust if the evaluation is done at multiple representative facilities, business divisions, and corporate offices.


Some predict that future major incidents will all have poor safety culture as a contributing factor. Safety culture will be the 'root cause' of the next decade. Industry must do more to equip itself to learn and do something about the underlying organizational and culture causes of major accident situations – BEFORE they happen.

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