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Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Engaging employees in process safety

July 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 achieve world-class safety performance.

Implementing an effective process safety system goes beyond documented policies and procedures. It requires behavioral reliability in its execution. In the article, “What process safety needs from a leader” (Safety+Health, June 2013), my colleague Scott Stricoff outlined what a leader must do to support process safety. In this article, I will explore what organizations need from employees to prevent catastrophic events.

Process vs. personal safety – Employees need to understand the differences between personal safety and process safety. If this distinction is not understood, workers may mistakenly believe that good performance in personal safety is the same as effective control of the potential for catastrophic events. While personal safety exposures typically are very apparent in the workplace, mounting process safety issues can be developing silently in the background. Employees play a role in raising process concerns just as they would alert management to obstacles in the workplace that impact their personal safety.

Maintain a sense of vulnerability – Employees learn to accept as normal the risk they live with every day. Unfortunately, their comfort level can serve to lower the rigor and urgency with which policies and procedures are implemented and maintenance items are addressed. This does not, however, change the risks associated with the chemical they are handling. Developing and maintaining a healthy sense of respect for workplace exposures is critical to creating a culture in which employees understand the importance of consistently following process management disciplines.

It’s OK to “cry wolf” – Too often, employees feel that if they raise a concern that turns out to be nothing, they will be punished or ridiculed. The path of least resistance is to assume that it is someone else’s job to raise an issue, or that the observed deviation from normal is not a big deal. In a strong process safety culture, the little boy who cried wolf would get the key to the city, assuming he brought facts and data to the table. Employees need to be knowledgeable enough to recognize when and how to intervene, and be willing to do so. The challenge for leaders is to create a culture in which employees not only recognize when things start to go off track, but are willing and able to intervene to prevent a small problem from becoming a major event.

A note to leadership

A client recently had two small chemical releases in separate plants. At the next senior leadership team meeting, while the safety manager reviewed the incidents, the president wondered aloud why he had not been made aware of them at the time. The safety manager responded that the president must be doing something that makes people think these types of events are unimportant to him.

Leaders have both systemic and symbolic roles with respect to engaging employees in process safety. The systemic role is to ensure the “consequence systems” in the organization recognize and support employees who raise process safety issues, no matter how seemingly small. The symbolic role is to promote the contributions that employees make to improving process safety, thereby demonstrating that management values their input.

In a culture of commitment, employees have a personal value for safety that drives their performance. Safety isn’t just about following the rules or “checking the box”; it’s about going the extra mile because it’s the right thing to do.

Leadership actions have the greatest impact on creating a culture where employees feel accountability and ownership for the organization. To the extent that the culture helps employees feel safe and comfortable raising issues, employees will be more willing to give the discretionary effort required to support all aspects of safety.

Greg Robinson is vice president of BST. Robinson has a 20-plus-year track record of helping clients in the United States, Europe and Asia achieve breakthrough results. He helps leaders use diagnostics to identify and implement behavior and process changes required for organizational improvement.

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