Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Vigilance and progress in process safety leadership

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Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA Insight share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.

Anyone who has seen an ad for investment services is familiar with the well-worn disclaimer, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” The statement (no doubt written by lawyers) is simply a way of warning would-be customers that, along with the potential rewards of tapping into a global market, there are inherent risks. While the firm they invest in may have proven systems, sophisticated algorithms and a good reputation, success is never guaranteed.

A smart investor never wholly relies on good tools – he or she also must be vigilant in monitoring the market for small changes.

Safety leaders are sometimes reminded of this adage when a catastrophic event occurs in an otherwise high-performing company. It’s not uncommon – even in companies with a good reputation for safety – for such events to reveal serious hazards that went unnoticed or ignored, sometimes for years. No one would assume that the executives of such a company want to have, or would knowingly tolerate or reinforce, a broken process safety culture, and yet the facts of the safety performance speak for themselves.

So what can leaders responsible for process industry operations do to maintain vigilance and ensure process safety that delivers true, sustained excellence?

  • Align intention with action. 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 but are confusing at lower levels of the organization.
  • Assess process safety culture. Executives often have little or no visibility of the process safety culture at operating levels. Few organizations have effective ways to use process safety instruments to measure 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.
  • Monitor leading indicators of process safety performance. Executives often have little process safety data on leading indicators of performance. Because catastrophic 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.
  • Have a plan. Commitment to safety (intentions) by executives is not enough. Executives must employ a process safety strategy and understand 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.

Major incidents can have a tragic impact on lives, business continuity and reputations. Process safety training for employees is not enough. Nor will process safety testing cover every base. An important component of catastrophic event prevention must occur at the executive level of organizations. Just as investors must ultimately resist depending on past performance, leaders in process safety also must maintain vigilance, engagement and attention to ensure that they adequately address risk.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Scott Stricoff is president, process safety and Americas region, for DEKRA Insight. Scott has more than 40 years of experience in safety performance improvement and today helps organizations build strong safety leadership and culture.

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