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Employees have spoken…fear and failed leadership prove disastrous in safety

Employees have spoken…fear and failed leadership prove disastrous in safety

Finally, we hear the truth! In a July 21st  NY Times article, "Workers on Doomed Rig Voiced Concern About Safety" results of a confidential survey completed by employees in the weeks before the rig exploded are unveiled. Most alarmingly, safety concerns of workers on the rig included: fear of reporting mistakes, observed unsafe behavior, unreliable and unsafe equipment and poor decision making. A spokesperson for Transocean is also cited as saying "the Deepwater Horizon had seven consecutive years without a single lost-time incident or major environmental event". How can an organization hail low or zero incidents when their corporate culture is one of fear and unsafe practices?

As someone who has consulted with companies large and small about their behavior-based safety practices, I can tell you that this issue, although mostly unintentional, is present to some degree in many organizations. When senior leaders focus on incident rate as their primary measure of safety they will never really know how safe their organizations are. Is it a fluke that this rig had seven years without an incident and then had an incident leading to 11 deaths and the most devastating and catastrophic oil spill in history? No. There were plenty of predictors, many of them highlighted in the report. All of them pointing to poor safety leadership. Based on my expertise with the science of behavior and in working in these environments, I offer a scientific perspective to the concerns that were revealed:

Fear of reporting mistakes Organizations can never achieve safety excellence if they have a culture of fear. The survey showed that rig employees feared reporting mistakes or other problems. The fear undoubtedly came from senior leaderships’ use of negative reinforcement and punishment (one worker was quoted as saying "The company is always using fear tactics"). The side effect of this strategy is that mistakes, near misses and other problems are not brought forth to be corrected, they are hidden like a ticking time bomb, that in this case ignited.

Unsafe behavior Employees stated that company plans were not carried out properly and they "often saw unsafe behavior on the rig". It appears they had a behavior-based safety process in place but it was being pencil-whipped at least some of the time. What was leadership doing to ensure the integrity of the system? Just having a system in place isn’t enough; the system needs to demonstrate impact.

Equipment/maintenance problems Workers reported equipment reliability problems, failure to inspect on a regular basis, and a huge backlog of maintenance jobs undone. Maintaining a safe physical environment is one of the most important roles of leadership in safety but clearly it was not a priority in this case. This article is a must read for anyone wanting to understand the genesis of this disaster as it highlights the danger of the approach many senior leaders take to safety: focus on production and let incident rate be your barometer of when the focus needs to shift to safety. The question is, are you safe by accident? I urge you to take steps now to strengthen your safety leadership.


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Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences. In her free time, Judy can be found on a pool deck, soccer pitch or volleyball court cheering for her two kids.

 

Comments

I think it illustrates the point that there is risk as a leader in any area of performance be it production, quality, finance or safety if you limit the way that it is monitored to just one or two methods. That of course is based on the assumption that given appropriate information a leader actually cares or rather finds it reinforcing to lead safety.

Now the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded that the Washington Metro system's fatal crash a year ago was "inevitable" and due to a negligeent attitude toward safety, along with chronic track failures. Many thousands of Washintonians use this unsafe system daily.

If I am to convince senior leadership to stop using AIFR as their safety barometer, what measures would you suggest they use?

We recommend leaders use a composite safety index to measure safety. Incident rate does need to be one of the measures, however the focus should be on proactive or preventative measures. Senior managers should pay attention to and manage the proactive measures month-to-month. The proactive measures would be different in each organization given the tools and processes that organization has in place. Some examples include: safe behavior observational data, hazard identification and remediation data, data on corrective actions taken based on near misses and incidents, data on audits, and data on supervisor/ management behaviors related to preventing incidents. In short, the composite index should have a heavy emphasis on what everyone throughout the organization is doing to prevent incidents on a weekly and monthly basis. There is discipline required in getting managers to focus on an index score versus just incident rate, but if they do they will have much richer discussions about safety, and we believe they will have a much better sense about what the organization is doing well around safety and where the opportunities for improvement are. Yes, incident rate is the bottom line but if you can convince senior leaders of the unreliability of the number (remember the Deepwater Horizon went 7 years without a lost time incident), then hopefully they will be interested in more meaningful and reliable measures.

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