Insights Blog

Safety Matters

by Bob Josch

Global competition for scarce resources in the oil and gas industry, coupled with pressure to profit, is driving a need for reduced operating costs. Companies increasingly turn to automation to meet that challenge, and to scores of processes and procedures to ensure on-the-job safety. Yet despite advances in technology and heavy layers of safety policies and regulations, there is still one component that can’t be programmed – human beings. We still need people to operate equipment, supervise, and make judgment calls. And people make mistakes.

More than 5 million people around the world go to work in the oil and gas industry every day. To a person, they do so aware of the hazards they face, both onshore and off-shore. But sadly, that doesn’t prevent accidents or injuries from happening.

Of course every organization values workplace safety and many have launched ambitious programs to improve their performance. All too often though, these programs come about in the wake of a serious accident or injury, or worse. Also too often, interest in these programs wanes over time – that is, until the next incident triggers a new wave of safety awareness.

So how do companies break this cycle? It takes a radical change in mindset.

In so many industries, accidents and incidents are seen as inescapable. Leadership teams don’t believe they have the power to stop them from happening altogether. That fundamental belief shapes their view of the world and in my opinion makes accidents not only possible, but inevitable.

But what if you changed that mindset so that any accident or injury was viewed as simply not acceptable? It may sound simple, but saying that “safety is a value” – and changing your beliefs and actions around safety – are two very different things.

So to impact safety performance, we have to impact beliefs and actions.

Our experience is that actions are a result of how people see things. In order to cause a real shift in behavior around safety, you have to fundamentally alter how people view safety. People’s perceptions of safety are too often limited by their views of what is possible. So the real trick to improving safety is expanding people’s views of what is possible. With this new perspective, they are better able to identify and acquire the skills necessary to elevate their safety performance and that of the organization.

Over the past 30 years at JMW, we have seen clients produce amazing and sustainable safety advances, even against dramatic odds.

For example, we worked with a refinery after a catastrophe that resulted in deaths and injuries. As we interviewed employees and contractors in the wake of the incident, it became clear that their perceptions of safety were severely skewed, driven by a top priority of “keeping the place up and running,” and “at any cost.” The head of the onsite fire department was actually proud that his team had extinguished hundreds of fires the year prior. Not even a tragic accident had a sufficient impact on this mindset. It wasn’t until the head of operations learned of new safety concerns and made a decision that flew in the face of the existing culture — ordering a site shutdown for nearly nine months – that perceptions began to change. Following this decision, as well as intensive training and development at all levels of the organization, the safety culture finally began to shift, in measures and standards across the board.

Such changes don’t happen easily, but where companies make them happen, the improvements are very real and sustainable. It’s also interesting to observe that they don’t occur in a vacuum, but are consistently accompanied by corresponding successes in all-important performance and financial results.

The secret? No amount of preaching or safety signage will get you there. The work requires gaining a deep understanding of the current organizational culture, including barriers to change. And it starts at the top. Safety failures aren’t failures of the rank and file – at the end of the day, they are leadership failures. And once the people at the top change their lens on safety, they can credibly lead a culture change that resonates throughout a workforce. The result is a commitment to safety in each and every person, versus an obligation to safety that is far less powerful.

An incident-free organization isn’t a pipe dream. It is not only possible, but achievable.


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