What type of failures in safety culture can be identified from oil and gas catastrophes of the last 40 years? Why are positive safety cultures not always created in organisations? How can you begin building a stronger safety culture? GL Noble Denton’s Applied Psychology & Human Factors Group considers these crucial questions.
Over the last 40 years there have been a number of high profile disasters in the oil and gas industry. Names such as Flixborough, San Juanico, Piper Alpha, Texas City, and more recently Deep water Horizon, have left an indelible mark on our conscience, especially when we remember the loss to human life, the environment and to the reputation of companies and individuals. Tragically, these five incidents alone account for over 700 fatalities.
Failings related to Safety Culture
The factors contributing to each disaster are varied and far reaching; with each issue coming into play at one critical point in time. However, weaknesses (human and technical) festering in the organisation, reflecting the underlying safety culture, are often also contributory factors. A high level review of accident reports connected to the disasters highlighted above, indicates weaknesses in safety culture related to:
- Poor management commitment to safety
- Prioritizing cost-cutting and production above safety
- Complacency about risks
- Staffing issues and excessive workload
- Inappropriate rewards and incentives for reporting incidents
- Inadequate training for emergencies
- Leaders inconsistently modelling safety behaviors
- Absence of learning from past incidents
- Fear of speaking up by staff
- Poor competency of managers in risk/hazard management
- Safety critical tasks not performed
- Organisational change poorly managed
- Inadequate communication and handover
Understanding Safety Culture
Why has the oil and gas industry been punctuated with major accidents since the 1970’s? Why do organisations continue to record high levels of injuries? Why does the HSE continue to issue large numbers of prohibition and enforcement notices? Ultimately, why is it that many companies have failed to build strong safety cultures?
One reason is that managers often fail to properly understand safety culture, let alone how to improve upon it. Some consider it too abstract a concept, tending to concentrate on tangible and operational day-to-day health and safety management. Others may have advanced their safety approach by comprehensively addressing operational functions, as well as more strategic level issues, but still have an ill-defined understanding of what knits these aspects together: a good safety culture. This shortcoming will ultimately reduce their overall effectiveness in the battle to improve safety.
In illuminating the concept of safety culture, the first steps are to define and then measure it. Definitions may differ, but most would agree that safety culture is the collective views of the workforce in relation to their values, attitudes and behaviours towards safety. In terms of measurement, it is necessary to go beyond piecemeal anecdotal views, or only rely on the views of senior management. According to the definition, measurement requires canvassing the views of those who live and shape your organisation’s culture – your people.
Unsurprisingly, a great deal of research has been conducted into the concept of safety culture. But research in itself is not sufficient to effectively tackle its measurement and development. Our team of psychologists have combined their academic backgrounds with hands-on experience of running safety culture surveys and used this to devise their own practical model for measuring safety culture. Our Safety Culture PROFILER Model is based on 10 key factors that represent safety culture (see Figure 1), which can all be directly measured by collecting workforce views. This is carried out by using our specially developed questionnaire, and supplemented by facilitated focus groups.
Safety Culture PROFILER Model
Figure 1: GL Noble Denton’s Safety Culture PROFILER Model
Data from the questionnaires and focus groups becomes the evidence base allowing a clear vision of how well an organisation performs on each of the 10 factors. People’s attitudes towards safety are clearly quantified by a percentage score. Areas that are weaker can then inform decisions on where attention needs to be focussed to drive forward improvements in safety and ultimately safety culture. Repeat surveying of the workforce can then show where progress has been made. In effect, we help to arm companies with the intelligence needed to make safety investment decisions and enhance their safety culture.
It is clear from our work with other high risk industries, that it is not wise to place complete faith in a safety management system without having a good understanding of how an organisation’s culture affects the attitudes and behaviours of employees tasked with managing safety. Of course, the caveat is that even with a strong safety culture a serious accident can still happen, but what is important to note, is that the chances of it happening are significantly reduced when the culture reflects a true commitment to safe working. Few can argue that there is a greater goal than protecting the lives of those we work with.
*Source : GL Noble Denton