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Safety Culture: Have You Checked Your Organization Lately?

Posted on December 16th, 2015 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence

Committed Culture

Image Source: Center for Chemical Process Safety Vision 20/20

Years ago, during one of my very first customer visits working for Elsevier, I was having a friendly chat with a scientist at an Oil and Gas company while walking to a meeting room in their office facilities. As we made our way through the halls, we came upon a handful of steps and he suddenly turned and stopped to instruct myself and my colleagues: “Oh, before I forget, please make sure to hold the handrail as you go through the steps”. We were not climbing a steep, vertical ladder by any means, and with only a handful of steps to clear, what was in front of us barely even qualified as a staircase.

As many of you may expect, I learned very quickly back then that the ‘hold the handrail’ requirement (and getting chastised for not doing so) is commonly applied by companies as a small – yet emblematical it seems – tactic to support ongoing efforts to drive and maintain a safety-conscious culture from top to bottom and at all corners of an organization.

Indeed, safety remains a hot topic and a serious concern for many industries. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a worker dies from a work-related accident or disease every 15 seconds, amounting to about 2.3 million deaths per year. Within the same 15 seconds, 153 workers would have had a work-related accident, amounting to about 317 million accidents annually – many of which will also cause extended periods of work absence. More than just trying to avoid regulatory concerns or bad publicity that affects their reputation and relationship with customers and the market as a whole, companies are always looking for ways to minimize safety risks simply because no one wants to get hurt, see their coworkers get hurt, or cause any harm to the general public.

Focusing on the Invisible

Worker safety and process safety are generally seen as separate concepts, and here is a great blog post from ICHEME (The Institution of Chemical Engineers) on key differences from a chemical engineer’s perspective. What they do have in common is that success is largely driven by an organization’s safety culture. In a late 2013 article published in the Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries, authors quoted a great description of what safety culture is (Source: M. Sam Mannan, Ray A. Mentzer, Jiaqi Zhang, Framework for creating a Best-in-Class safety culture, Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries, Elsevier, 2013):

“Safety culture means an organization’s shared attitudes, values, norms, and beliefs about safety, including attitudes about danger, risk, and the proper conduct of hazardous operations.”

I am reminded that culture is not only shared but also pertains to many things that live in the hearts and minds of people. One of my favorite assertions about corporate culture is that it is what people often do when they think no one is watching. It is less about how management and employees talk in meetings and presentations about how things get done in the organization, and more about what actually happens. On the concept of corporate culture and safety, Dale Wilson, a reliability engineer, asserts an interesting point (Source: Dale Wilson, Why your organization should change from reactive to proactive culture, Plant Engineering, CFE Media, 2014):

“Most organizations today live in a reactive culture. They thrive on it and love the hero mentality and firefighting persona that goes along with it. Reacting to a failure or incident appears heroic. This type culture garners accolades, frequent pats on the back, awards and recognition.”

If this is the case indeed, then workers, managers and executives must actively pursue moving their organization beyond this mentality. The Center for Chemical Process Safety, a community of chemical engineers dedicated to minimizing process safety incidents and driving education and industry best practices, gets this important concept quite right. In the 30-year anniversary video they published online last month, CCPS eloquently promotes taking pride in not just the invisible ways that chemical engineering improves life but also in making safety accidents and failures virtually non-existent:

Assessing Safety Culture

In the same video, CCPS highlights their current Vision 20/20 initiative, a program that champions and provides guidance on what ideal process safety will look like within a day-to day-setting “in the not-so-distant future”, when it is upheld by companies based on 5 industry tenets (i.e., committed culture, adherence to standards, competency development, vibrant management systems and enhanced sharing and application of lessons learned) and supported by community passion around 4 global societal themes (i.e., enhanced stakeholder knowledge, responsible collaboration, harmonized global standards, and meticulous verification).

Notably, the entire program has a strong emphasis in the role culture plays, within companies and amongst stakeholders across government, industry and academia. For example, Vision 20/20 supports the global expansion of process safety education in the undergraduate chemical engineering curriculum, with an eye towards instilling the right attitudes and practices in engineers at the pre- or early career stage.

CCPS offers practical information and resources for aligning with Vision 20/20 here. In particular, I recommend looking at their assessment tool for evaluating one’s organization against the 5 industry tenets. The tool provides detailed questions for team discussion and highlights how companies with ‘Committed Cultures’ tend to have:

  • Executives that personally and visibly lead process safety
  • Operators and mechanics that diligently follow procedures and speak up when they suspect a problem or see an opportunity for improvement
  • Supervisors and managers that verify work is done properly, intervene to correct situations, and openly communicate negative news to management
  • Employees and contractors that commit to “do it right” and have a plan for when it goes wrong

How well do you know your organization’s safety culture and what can you learn by discussing this with your colleagues? Whether you’re a process safety leader, an executive, team manager, or an engineer, lives are literally at stake — now is the time to reflect on this question and embrace continuous improvement.

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