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Last Year's Disasters Changed the Safety Dynamic: Do You Have a Safety Strategy for 2011?

Dec. 15, 2010
True operational integrity remains uncommon across industry, but these steps can form the basis for a new standard of safety performance.

The doubts and questions from 2010 linger with us. What caused the explosion, the cave-in, the leak? Most importantly, could these disasters happen to us in 2011?

CEOs and their operations leaders increasingly confront uncertain answers. The key to prevention lies in whether corporate leaders see the imperative of continuously improving their safety culture -- that deep-down core value that employees across the organization share for safety -- and have the vision and will to make an improved culture a reality. Or, will they address the matter with narrowly defined memos, directives and programs, and an unspoken bias that "it can't happen here?" The difference in approach will determine whether companies in various industries work through 2011 with confidence in sound safety systems or with lingering anxiety instead.

Leaders in industries such as oil and gas, mining, chemicals, utilities and transportation will benefit from understanding the implications of the unprecedented events of 2010. In the aftermath of the BP spill, the Massey mine tragedy in West Virginia, the PG&E explosion in San Bruno, Calif., and the Chilean miner entrapment, the stakes are high; safety systems and cultures that are subject to occasional failure are simply unacceptable.

Most safety technology systems are effective most of the time. But true operational integrity, i.e. operating systems and cultures that produce uniformly safe and reliable behaviors and outcomes, remains uncommon across industry.

The unpredictability in many industries presents a problem and an opportunity for C-suite visionaries and their management and operations teams. All must be dedicated to setting and meeting a new standard. To enhance safety, executives and their teams should:

Recent events such as the collapse of the Chilean mine that trapped 33 miners demonstrate the need for continuously improving safety cultures. Make safety a CEO-level issue. Traditionally, safety efforts have required support or sponsorship from senior leaders. While BP CEO Tony Hayward was a supporter of safety improvement, his commitment did not translate into an effective vision and personal safety ethic. Explained and implemented correctly, these attributes establish safety as a value, which is the basis of a strong safety culture. Paul O'Neill delivered this kind of personal engagement at Alcoa; Paul Anderson at Duke Energy; and Sean O'Keefe at NASA after the Columbia explosion.

Radically accelerate the safety improvement process. Organizations tend to filter innovative safety ideas slowly to the top by analyzing, rethinking and subjecting them to budget constraints, slow reviews and continual revisions. The result is frequent delay or outright rejection. In this type of culture, safety improvements are considered along with other organizational initiatives and ranked according to "strategic" priority. While this practice is suitable for most aspects of organizational performance, safety cannot be an on-again, off-again priority. Treating it as such for a quarter or a year generates a culture of mediocrity and increases exposure to catastrophe.

Stop the surveys and start assessing leading indicators. Most organizations have clean, visible outcome metrics for safety performance. But these measures -- including injury rates and related data -- are lagging indicators. Safety visionaries know that leading indicators are needed to assess exposures before accidents happen. Many organizations use surveys as a proxy for measuring culture, but they make matters worse if they are not supported by valid methodology and do not generate actionable data. Leading indicators such as the frequency of safety observations and feedback, and the amount of time it takes for a safety issue to be addressed, are better day-to-day measures. Near-misses, when received in the C-suite as an opportunity to improve rather than simply bad news that could have been worse except for a twist of fate, can lead to significant improvement in downstream outcomes.

Develop a comprehensive safety strategy, with short- and long-term objectives, immediate action plans and specific accountabilities. In industry, safety management is often embodied in programs or engineered in fits and starts, like firefighting. While discrete programs are preferable to firefighting, neither approach assures sustainable operational integrity.
Instead, an overarching strategy is needed that addresses the gaps between the current safety state and the desired state. Strategic programs and processes then should be aligned to address the gaps, with action plans for both the short and long term. Specific accountabilities and outcomes then can be defined in measurable terms and tracked.

The way to safety excellence has been well established by leading organizations such as Alcoa, Exxon Mobil and DuPont. Many times, a catastrophic event serves as the impetus for improvement. At Exxon, for example, the Valdez incident triggered a learning process that led to the realization that safety and operational integrity are essentially the same thing. More than 100 years ago, an accident that killed members of the DuPont family catalyzed a safety culture that endures. In other cases, fortunately, leadership sees safety excellence as a business advantage and an employee-motivation and -retention strategy, as demonstrated by Alcoa's former CEO, O'Neill.

The BP Deepwater Horizon incident and the other tragic events of 2010 should trigger leadership vision and long-term drive for safety and operational excellence in 2011 and beyond. The time for learning, reflection and action is now; the time for just hoping "it can't happen here" has long passed.

Thomas R. Krause is co-founder and chairman of the board of BST, a safety performance consulting firm based in Ojai, Calif., whose clients include hundreds of manufacturers worldwide, major oil companies, NASA and patient-safety-focused health care organizations.

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