Safety Leadership – Who Is Responsible? You Are …

Michel Houtermans 2015-08-01

The Future Of Safety Is In Your Hands

I want to share with you a video presentation from Mrs. Edie Weiner, a futurist. She sits on the board of many companies and helps understand what is going to come in the future and how it will impact their business, their products, their futures. See the video at the end of this post.

There is a very strong message in this video. Many people believe that they cannot make a change, that they cannot make a difference in their organisation. She gives the example of the butterfly that is flapping its wings in one part of the world and, after a domino effect, causing a hurricane in another part of the world. For many people this is hard to believe. How can the action of something so small eventually lead to something so big. Another example she gives is how a few years back political instability in the Middle East resulted in higher energy prices because a girl dumped a boy in Boston a few years earlier. Mark Zuckerberg created a girl rating site, later called Facebook. The platform that later started the Arab Spring. The butterfly effect.

Safety Leadership – Who Is Responsible?

Our company deals a lot with functional safety. Achieving safety is not easy and requires a solid safety culture. When we talk to clients they often tend to implement technical solutions. But technical solutions alone are not the answer. The big accidents in the industrial world do not happen because one technical solution fails. They happen because of the decisions made by any body involved in the lifecycle of that factory or plant.

In the end we are all responsible. Every day we can and do make our own decisions. And even not making a decision is a decision that will influence what is going to happen in your live, in your neighbourhood, in your world. You want to know who is responsible? Take a look in the mirror. You are responsible. You can make the difference with the actions and decisions you take.

Safety Leadership – Starts With Management Leadership

In any organisation management is in my view ultimately responsible for safety. They are responsible for the financial performance of the company but they are also responsible for the safety performance. Decisions made by management today determine the future of the company on the long run.

Every company goes through financial cycles. You cannot have a top year every year. When the financial times are bad, management needs to find solutions to sail the company through these hard times. Often the solution is to cut cost. Cutting cost can be done in many ways. Often people are laid off. Most effective is when we lay off the older (and most experienced) employees because they cost the most and have the most benefits. From a safety point of view this is a bad idea. The senior employees have a lot of experience. When you lay them off, a lot of safety knowledge disappears. It will not cause an accident on the day that the lay off takes place. But maybe five years later when nobody remembers that management took that decision to lay off.

Another way to cut cost is to stop projects. I experienced this one in real life. A new gas plant is being built. Our company is hired as HAZOP Leader for a two year project. We have not even started with the HAZOPs yet and management makes a decision to cut costs. The plant needs to be built at all cost, but lets skip all “unnecessary” tasks. So the decision was made not to perform HAZOP as they were seen only as a cost factor. Management clearly did not understand that every dollar invested in safety was a dollar invested in avoiding accidents. And accidents cost about 10-100 of your investment. Lets hope there is no butterfly effect in this case.

Another real life example. The project team performs a safety study and identifies the need for an additional safety system, in this case a safety instrumented system (SIS). Accounts of the company state that this year there is no budget any more for implementing the SIS. For next years budget management forgets put in the money for the SIS. Two years down the road the SIS is forgotten. Unfortunately there was a butterfly effect in this case. Not only because this SIS was not installed but because of a lot of mis management at this company.

Is this the solution?

When Louis XVI was King of France in the 18th century he made a very good decision. He decided that owners of blackpowder (gun powder) manufacturing plants had to live with their families next to the factory. Guess what happened to the level of safety within these manufacturing plants? One of the most famous blackpowder manufacturing companies founded in 1802 is still in business today: Dupont. Their safety culture was rooted into their corporate system due to this old French law, and still exists today.

Making management responsible is in my view the only way to achieve a good safety culture within a company. Safety needs to be implemented top down, not bottom up. Management needs to understand, believe in and implement safety by making it a top management priority. Otherwise safety becomes a superficial statement. And superficial safety makes companies go out of business. That is one of the reasons why Union Carbide does not exist any more as a company after the Bhopal Accident in 1984. Or why Occidental Petroleum does not do business any more in the North Sea as it had to sell off all its North Sea assets afters the Piper Alpha accident in 1998.

The Indian government has taken some very bold steps to achieve a higher level of safety. Directors of state owned oil companies are held directly responsible for any accidents that might happen in their plants. The decision was unfortunately taken after another accident in India, the Jaipur accident. But better late than never.

Do you know any other governments that make Plant Directors directly responsible? Do you think it is a good or bad idea?

The future is in your own hands

Whether your management takes safety serious or not should not leave your future in their hands. You can make your own decisions and you should take responsibility in your own hands. Even if it means you decide to leave the job.

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