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Creating a Culture of Safety

May 1, 2007
In the wake of a safety breach at a company, investigators historically have focused their efforts on identifying and correcting operational processes that failed.

But in the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s recent report on the March 23, 2005, explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery, which resulted in 15 deaths and 170 injuries, investigators for the first time looked into how the company failed to establish a “corporate safety culture.”

Among its recommendations, the report suggested that “BP should involve the relevant stake-holders to develop a positive, trusting and open process safety culture within each U.S. refinery.”

For most organizations, HR executives should be the point people on creating and making sure that a corporate safety culture exists, says Carolyn Merritt, chairman of the Chemical Safety Board.

“In many places, HR acts as the bridge between the hourly employees and management, and they bridge the different layers of management as well, which is very important,” she says. “These are the people who have their fingers on the cultural pulses of the organization.”

The board hopes its report, released last month, will be a wake-up call to all employers about thinking beyond operational processes and rules when creating a safe work environment, Merritt says.

“We think this report has already awakened a lot of people that these risks could be growing within their own organizations,” she says.

Due to increased public scrutiny and media attention, companies around the world are becoming savvier about the importance of creating a corporate culture around safety, experts say.

Also, many companies have begun to realize that being proactive on safety issues can save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, says Michael Murray, director of casualty risk control consulting at Aon Risk Services.

One Aon client, a chemical manufacturer, realized cost savings of $700,000 over a six-month period by addressing safety culture issues, Murray says.

“Our clients are saying, ‘If I have deficiencies in my safety programs, then I probably have deficiencies in other areas,’ ” he says.

To create a culture of safety, companies need to make someone accountable for the effort. They need to put in place incentives to encourage safety and communicate to all employees what the goals of the program are, experts say.

While BP had a code of conduct that it shared with employees, the code was very generic and didn’t provide specifics on what workers should be doing, the report says.

The Chemical Safety Board report also reprimands BP for being too focused on personal injuries as a metric for success. Instead, companies should focus on “process safety metrics,” which include the company’s goals, the report says.

For example, instead of measuring injuries, companies should set goals on how many safety meetings each plant has in a quarter, then measure how well each plant meets that goal, says Greg Andress, executive manager at Gallagher Bassett Services, a safety consultancy based in Itasca, Illinois. “You want to measure the drivers within your organization that are going to create a change in the culture,” he says.

Similarly, companies need to create incentives so employees feel comfortable reporting accidents or the potential for accidents, experts say.

According to the report, BP did not have a trusting and open environment to facilitate these kinds of discussions.

“Not wanting to hear bad news is a key issue,” Merritt says. “Companies need to reward those people in order to have a working, positive safety culture.”

But BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell says, “Safety has always been a big part of the culture at BP,” and that it is a factor in determining all employees’ compensation. The company is working to improve the processes it has in place across the company to make sure standards are set, he says.

Meanwhile, the Chemical Safety Board plans to make cultural issues a key part of its investigations from now on, Merritt says.

And companies can’t merely think they can fix everything and then focus on other areas. “Whenever there is a merger or reorganization, this issue needs to be reassessed,” she says.

Merritt recalls a recent conversation she had with a refinery company that said an incident like what happened at BP “could never happen at our company.”

“That was a very scary statement,” Merritt says. “As soon as you believe your own rhetoric, you are in trouble.”

Jessica Marquez

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