Good Intentions Aren’t Enough: Improving process safety leadership

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A major global chemical company with a good reputation for safety was recently called out by Dr. David Michaels, the head of OSHA, who said: “[This company] promotes itself as having a ‘world-class safety’ culture and even markets its safety expertise to other employers, but these four preventable workplace deaths and the very serious hazards we uncovered at this facility are evidence of a failed safety program.”

This statement followed a chemical release incident in which four workers were killed, and in context this company has also had several other serious incidents investigated by the US CSB in recent years.

No one would assume that the executives of this company want to have, or would knowingly tolerate or reinforce, a broken safety culture, and yet the facts of their safety performance speak for themselves as does the statement from Dr. Michaels. So what can we learn from this?

  • The intentions of executives often are not reflected by what happens “on the shop floor.” No executive wants to see employees injured or killed, but too often executives believe that their intentions are clear, that everyone will understand how to resolve priorities that appear to conflict, or that simply issuing policy statements will impact performance. In reality most organizations have multiple initiatives, priorities, and programs competing for time, attention, and resources, and intentions that may seem clear to executives are confusing at lower levels of the organization.
  • Executives often have little or no visibility of the process safety culture at operating levels. Few organizations have effective ways to measure process safety culture. This can be measured in ways that have been shown to correlate with process safety outcomes, but undertaking such measurement and acting on the results is still an exception.
  • Executives often have little data on leading indicators of process safety performance. Because process safety incidents are relatively infrequent, it is easy to become complacent if the only information being viewed is lagging incident data. But process safety lends itself to leading indicators, and executives should regularly see a meaningful summary of leading process safety data.
  • Commitment to safety (intentions) by executives is not enough. Executives must understand their role in process safety—understanding the risks in their operations, and what good process safety leadership involves at their level. Process safety is often thought of as an engineering exercise that has little place in the C-suite, but in the absence of strong, effective, and consistent process safety leadership by senior executives, organizations will not sustain a strong process safety culture and prevent major incidents.

Process safety incidents can have major impact on lives, business continuity, and reputations. An important component of process safety must occur at the executive level of organizations. In the absence of this, process safety cannot be assured.

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