Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Manage change before it manages you


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

Engineers, technicians and other support staff often experience frustrations when they attempt to implement change but encounter a work process that slows them down.

Here are three examples of typical desired changes:

  • Building an enclosure around a sugar conveyor system
  • Installing a valve between an offline heat exchanger and its pressure relief device
  • Bypassing a safety alarm during a troubleshooting activity

Such changes are seemingly straightforward but have the potential to contribute to injury or loss of life if not managed well.

Beware of risk blindness to unintended consequences

No one makes a change with the intention to do harm. Yet often, intense focus on meeting productivity goals can blind workers to the potential for unintended, negative consequences. To assess how the proposed change would affect safety and health, having – and following – a work process that engages experts who understand the facility’s full hazard portfolio and design basis is important to helping you manage the change. Here are examples of changes that were made with good intentions but with high-risk potential for unintended consequences. The examples below were all involved in highly publicized situations that resulted in loss of life and property.

  • Bypassing alarms that frequently activate
  • Modifying machine guards to aid in maintenance tasks
  • Enclosing a process analyzer building storing compressed hydrogen
  • Grinding combustible dust to a smaller particle size specification
  • Transferring an experiment to the full-scale manufacturing plant
  • Shipping hazardous materials in bulk containers instead of in small bottles

Risk blindness can be addressed by multidisciplinary teams that review proposed changes and ask the right questions about the technical basis of making a change. Teams must confirm that equipment specifications are correct, the math is double-checked, inspections – or additional testing – are performed when there’s doubt, and appropriate engineering standards are carefully reviewed and applied.

Reduce complacency by asking the right questions

Overconfidence and complacency are two behaviors that, when combined, are dangerous. Leaders can help identify risk and promote good management-of-change behaviors by listening attentively and asking questions such as:
Who confirmed that this change meets engineering standards?
What is our commissioning plan before we return to operations?
Where is this happening?
When did we last look at the data that supports this conclusion?
Why is that device there?
How does this affect our operating procedures?

Facilities benefit from a workplace culture that makes everyone feel comfortable and valued – not suspicious or defensive – when questions are asked. Encouraging everyone to look out for each other’s safety when working to meet productivity goals is paramount. (See More than a manager: Leaders are needed to avoid organizational complacency)

Confirm it

Leaders need to be in the habit of performing a checklist process on their own systems to ensure changes are safe and the facility is ready to go when a change is made.

Organizations insist on following robust management-of-change processes because they care about their workers, their community and first responders. The true reward of confirming they got it right so their teams can responsibly improve their operations.


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

Sarah Eck is a process safety specialist with experience in building and improving safety programs to reduce catastrophic risk. She’s a professional engineer and certified process safety pro who’s leading several process safety consulting projects for DEKRA North America (



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