Safety Leadership: Avoiding disaster

Four key elements of process incident prevention

Editor’s Note: Creating a dialogue, keeping the focus, asking the right questions – achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2012 in Safety+Health, 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.

Your CEO asks what you are doing to be sure you do not have a catastrophic event. Depending on your industry, you might point to a process safety management system, or a systems safety plan, or to your OSH management system. But would that be enough?

The term “catastrophic event” refers to any incident in man-made systems that results in multiple fatalities/serious injuries, “major” property damage, or public or reputational impact. These events can occur in a wide variety of organizations, from petrochemical to manufacturing, and from utilities to transportation to mining. And while 25 years of innovation have led to better and stronger technical and management safety systems that mitigate these risks, catastrophic incidents continue to occur. After seeing Deepwater Horizon, the San Bruno natural gas explosion, the Chatsworth train crash and other events, many leaders are rightly worried that existing systems, while necessary, are not sufficient for prevention. And they are turning to safety leaders for answers.

Missing pieces

We already know the component parts of safety. We also know that the problem underlying catastrophic failures lies not with safety processes themselves, but with the execution of them in a comprehensive and consistent way. It is no surprise that culture is identified as a root cause in virtually every major incident in recent years. Variation in outcome is a function of how technical risk management systems are implemented – via human interactions, communications, teamwork, etc. – not what they are.

Improving catastrophic event prevention requires addressing these “missing pieces” – and explicitly aligning and integrating culture and leadership with technical and management systems. Fundamentally, there are four elements that leaders need to develop:

  • Anticipation is the practice of enhancing organizational sensitivity to the “weak signals” that may indicate increased risk. Catastrophic events may seem random, but in hindsight, the exposure to them was often present for months or even years without an incident. Leaders foster anticipation by having systems to capture and use information from a variety of sources, and by developing leaders who actively encourage the capture and analysis of this information.
  • Inquiry involves making effective use of information to analyze, understand and plan mitigation of risks. This practice specifically counters cognitive biases (mental shortcuts based on our knowledge and experience) that can lead to poor decisions. As a leader, this means developing skills to ask the right questions in the right way to get the right data. It also requires practicing specific behaviors, such as encouraging the voicing of dissenting opinions.
  • Execution entails ensuring that hazard identification, assessment and control efforts are followed as intended. Many organizations use periodic audits, but these are usually not enough to ensure consistent and ongoing activity. Managers need to systematically monitor, reinforce and verify effective program execution.
  • Resilience refers to the organization’s ability to react in ways that prevent upset conditions from becoming catastrophic events, and then learning from the experience. This requires appropriate knowledge throughout the organization and willingness to intervene, which relates directly to culture.

A comprehensive process incident prevention approach doesn’t replace technical and management systems; it supplements them. Specific leadership behaviors help create and sustain a culture that prevents catastrophic events. The path forward isn’t easy: Focused initiative is often needed to introduce new behaviors and to integrate them effectively with other efforts and in day-to-day activities. But the rewards are great: Getting ahead of process incidents while making safety a more integrated part of the business.

Scott Stricoff is president of global consulting firm BST. He oversees BST’s consulting and client partnerships in the transportation and utilities industries, government sector, and other arenas to enhance safety management and culture. Visit BST’s website at for more information.