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Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: What process safety needs from a leader

June 1, 2013

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Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2013, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to world-class safety performance.

The connection between leadership and process safety has not always been clear. Leaders often struggle to identify how or whether they affect process safety outcomes. The head of Transocean, for example, recently testified that while he wished his crew had done more to prevent the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, his organization had found no failure of management. To many leaders, the idea that some events will “just happen” despite leadership efforts is (and should be) deeply troubling.

New research shows that a leader’s effect on culture plays a critical and very specific role in catastrophic event prevention. The challenge for organizations is defining what they need from leaders to support a culture of process safety excellence.

Leadership wanted

A culture needs to support four elements of organizational functioning to achieve effective process safety:

  • Anticipation: Recognizing and acting on the weak signals that indicate potential for events
  • Inquiry: Ensuring the right questions are asked and the right analyses are done
  • Execution: Using systems consistently and reliably
  • Resilience: Enabling workers to have the knowledge and willingness to intervene on small issues and prevent them from becoming big issues

So what does this require from the leaders who drive culture? If process safety leadership was a job description, it would contain four basic competencies essential to success:

  1. Have the conviction to lead safety. Process safety needs someone who will lead because he or she has a deeply held belief that it’s the right thing to do. The four elements described above are not easy, and they must be developed and sustained over time – often in the face of conflicting priorities. Anticipation, for instance, requires developing a tolerance for false positives to detect weak signals. Leaders with a strong personal value and vision for safety are best equipped to navigate their teams through the noise that might otherwise create complacency or desensitization.
  2. Understand how process safety works. Effective process safety leaders continually discuss exposure and risk and use metrics to provide feedback to their teams. A leader doesn’t need to be an expert on safety, but does need to know enough to detect patterns, assess information and ask the right questions. The critical importance of a leader’s knowledge is a recurrent theme in catastrophic event investigations. In the 2005 BP Texas City disaster, for instance, lack of knowledge led leaders to mistake good personal safety performance as an indicator of good safety performance overall.
  3. Possess (and practice) great leadership skills. Safe companies have great safety leaders. Effective safety leaders share common practices such as vision, credibility, communication, collaboration, feedback, action orientation and accountability. What leaders emphasize and reinforce determines how people respond to events, how they make decisions and whether they carry out the organization’s objectives.
  4. Have the ability to influence people. Great leaders use a transformational style to engage people. Process safety leaders must enable people to know and do the things that execute process safety systems reliably, detect weak signals, question assumptions and intervene when necessary. A great example of the need for influence is the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. The foam breakage that contributed to the event was a known problem and was known to be outside mission parameters. Yet, the culture allowed the deviations to persist because deviations had not yet resulted in a problem and people were discouraged from challenging decision-makers.

Process safety management clearly is essential to catastrophic event prevention (and has contributed to great improvements) but by itself is not enough for reliable catastrophic event prevention. By reinforcing and developing the critical leadership behaviors that drive anticipation, inquiry, execution and resilience, we create a culture that supports and sustains process safety excellence.

Scott Stricoff is president of BST. Stricoff is a noted thought leader with demonstrated expertise in process safety and hazard analysis, occupational health and safety, and environmental and public health.

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