This workplace safety article was previously published in the June 2013 issue of Safety+Health magazine.
The connection between leadership and process safety management (PSM) has not always been clear. Leaders often struggle to identify how or whether they affect process safety strategy or outcomes. The head of Transocean, for example, recently testified that while he wished his crew had done more to prevent the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, his organization had found no failure of management. To many leaders, the idea that some events will “just happen” despite leadership efforts is (and should be) deeply troubling.
Research (and over thirty years of process safety consulting experience) shows that leaders play a critical and very specific role in catastrophic event prevention through their effect on culture. Of the 10 most recent events investigated by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, each had at least one of four cultural factors as a root cause alongside PSM failures. The challenge for organizations is defining what it needs from leaders to support a culture of process safety excellence.
There are four elements of organizational functioning that a culture needs to support for effective process safety governance: Anticipation (recognizing and acting on the weak signals that indicate potential for events); Inquiry (assuring that the right questions are asked and the right analyses are done); Execution (using systems consistently and reliably); and Resilience (enabling workers to have the knowledge and willingness to intervene with small issues and prevent them from becoming big issues). So what does this require from the leaders who drive culture? If process safety leadership were a job description, there would be four basic competencies essential to success:
- Have the conviction to lead safety. Good process safety testing is not enough. Companies need someone who will lead not because safety’s on his goals or because there’s a crisis, but because he has a deeply-held belief that it’s the right thing to do. The four elements described above are not easy and they must be developed and sustained over time – often in the face of conflicting priorities. Anticipation, for instance, requires developing a tolerance for false positives in order to detect weak signals. Leaders with a strong personal value and vision for safety are best equipped to navigate their teams through the noise that might otherwise create complacency or desensitization.
- Understand how process safety works. Effective process safety leaders continually discuss exposure and risk and use metrics to provide feedback to their teams. They seek out process safety services to expand their knowledge. However, a leader doesn’t need to be an expert on safety, but she does need to know enough to detect patterns, assess information, and ask the right questions. The critical importance of a leader’s knowledge is a recurrent theme in catastrophic event investigations. In the 2005 BP Texas City disaster, for instance, lack of knowledge led leaders to mistake good personal safety performance as an indicator of good safety performance overall.
- Possess (and practice) great leadership skills. Safe companies have great safety leaders. Effective safety leaders share common practices such as vision, credibility, communication, collaboration, feedback, action orientation, and accountability. What leaders emphasize and reinforce determines how people respond to events, how they contribute to the incident reporting program, and whether they carry out the objectives of the organization.
- Have the ability to influence people. Great leaders use a transformational style to engage people in the work. Process safety leaders must enable people to know and do the things that execute process safety systems reliably, detect weak signals (through good use of process safety data), question assumptions, and intervene when necessary. A great example of the need for influence is the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. The foam breakage that contributed to the event was a known problem and was known to be outside of mission parameters. Yet, the culture allowed the deviations to persist (many times ahead of Columbia) because deviations hadn’t yet resulted in a problem and people were discouraged from challenging the decision makers.
Clearly, PSM is essential to catastrophic event prevention (and has contributed to great improvements) but by itself, PSM is not enough for reliable catastrophic event prevention. By reinforcing and developing the critical leadership behaviors that drive anticipation, inquiry, execution, and resilience we create a culture that supports and sustains process safety excellence.