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A Culture for Safety: What the BP Baker Report Didn’t Tell Us

The challenge for leaders in the chemical process industries is to build a culture that supports strong safety performance as well as productivity and quality. Here's a look at ways to accomplish this important task.

The challenge for leaders in the chemical process industries is to build a culture that supports strong safety performance as well as productivity and quality. Here's a look at ways to accomplish this important task.

By Scott Stricoff

9 Keys to Safety

The nine characteristics of organizational functioning that predict safety outcomes are listed below.

1. Procedural justice: the real and perceived fairness in decision making

2. Management credibility: management practicing what it preaches

3. Perceived organizational support: employees feeling valued and supported

4. Leader-member exchange: leaders looking out for their people's best interests

5. Teamwork: people working together toward common goals

6. Work group relations: how well co-workers get along

7. Organizational value for safety: employees perceiving the importance in safety performance improvement

8. Upward communication: communication about safety flowing freely upward through the organization

9. Approaching others about safety: employees feeling free to speak to each other about safety concerns

The Baker Report on the BP Texas City explosion has focused increased attention on process safety and the role that culture plays in avoiding process safety incidents. The report clearly identifies cultural issues and engineering/hardware issues as the foundational causes of the event. However, it suggests that a process safety culture is different from the personnel safety culture, and the latter can be strong even if the former is not.

In reality, any chemical manufacturer organization has one culture, which is comprised of the underlying assumptions and beliefs shared within the organization. Culture is established based on what has been successful over a long period of time, and because culture is deeply embedded, it's difficult to identify and change. Culture is not outcome specific. In other words, there is one culture within the organization — not different cultures for safety, quality, etc. However, the culture that does exist can be more or less favorable to different specific outcomes.

For example, there can be a culture in which heroic efforts are valued — a kind of "can-do" culture in which people regularly go "above and beyond" to meet targets. The underlying assumptions in this culture are likely to include the beliefs that individual initiative is more important than procedures, and when strong results are achieved, the methods used to get them are secondary in importance. That kind of culture can be great for meeting production targets or getting maintenance work done on schedule. However, it may not be strongly supportive of safety unless there are other balancing cultural norms that discourage taking unacceptable risks and short-cutting safety-critical procedures.

Leading Culture

The challenge for leaders within a chemical manufacturing organization is to shape the culture to support all key organizational objectives. It is not as simple as just saying "safety is number one" because, in reality, absolute safety is impossible short of shutting down operations. Organizations should strive for a culture in which the importance of all goals is recognized, the "non-negotiables" associated with each goal are understood, and when conflicts arise, the appropriate way to reconcile them is understood.

Fortunately, there is a way to build a culture that supports strong safety performance — both process safety and personnel safety — while supporting strong performance in productivity, quality, and other organizational imperatives.

Research has identified nine characteristics of organizational functioning that predict safety, as well as other, outcomes in the chemical and other industries. These organizational functioning characteristics are measurable factors that are direct products of the culture. For example, procedural justice — workers' perceptions of whether the process used to make decisions affecting them is fair — is one of these factors. High levels of procedural justice correlate with better safety (and quality and productivity) outcomes.

The other key factors are management credibility, perceived organizational support, leader-member exchange, teamwork, work group relations, organizational value for safety, upward safety communication, and approaching others about safety. It is interesting to note that while these nine factors are correlated with safety performance, six of the nine are not specific to safety. A culture that supports safety tends to support performance more generally. Research and experience show that organizational functioning factors are strongly influenced by the practices of leaders at all levels.

Culture in Action

(Click on image for larger version.)
Figure 1: Here are the organizational functioning scores of a chemical manufacturing site before and after intervention. The scores are expressed as percentiles, showing comparison to other organizations in a range of industries. The nine characteristics of organizational functioning that predict safety outcomes are listed across the bottom; PJ stand for procedural justice, LMX is leader-member exchange, MC is management credibility, POS is perceived organizational support, TW is teamwork, WGR is work group relations, OVS is organizational value for safety, UC is upward communication, and AO stands for approaching others about safety.

(Click on image for larger version.)
Figure 2: This control chart of a chemical manufacturing site's recordable rate compares performance before and after intervention.
An ethylene-based industrial chemicals manufacturing facility with more than 500 employees illustrates how strengthening culture by focusing on individual leadership practices can improve safety. This site had good safety performance by industry standards; however, an improvement trend had stalled and the site began experiencing a steady stream of injuries with increasing severity. The site decided to reinvent how it approached safety, beginning with the culture.

Using a tool that measures perceptions of the nine factors predictive of downstream performance, the site learned where it stood with respect to other organizations in a range of industries. Results showed the site ranked largely around the 60th percentile across the nine scales but above the 80th percentile for approaching others — as shown in Figure 1. This meant that technicians were likely to speak up about performance issues among themselves. Results also indicated significant opportunities for improving leader-member exchange, perceptions of fairness in decision making, and the perceived organizational value for safety.

The site worked to revive an employee-driven safety effort and align it with activities of the leadership team. After assessing individual leader characteristics, the site's leaders participated in a workshop to help them understand their role in culture transformation and define performance targets in management credibility, organizational support for safety, and communicated value for safety. Each leader then participated in one-on-one coaching sessions and received feedback on his or her interaction with direct reports and on progress toward the coaching targets.

Within 12 months, the company's baseline incident rate had dropped to under 0.5 per 100 full-time workers — as shown in Figure 2 — and beat a corporate mandate by a year. Two years after the initial assessment, the site re-administered the same cultural diagnostic survey and found significant improvement across all nine scales — also shown in Figure 1.

The lesson for the chemical industry is that culture does matter. The key to leveraging this lesson is to understand what culture really means and articulate in both word and action the characteristics that drive sustainable safety improvement.

Scott Stricoff is the chief operating officer of Behavioral Science Technology Inc. (BST) in Ojai, CA. He is a certified industrial hygienist and a certified safety professional who has more than 20 years of experience in management consulting, process safety, hazard analysis, and occupational health and safety. He earned a master's degree in business administration from Northeastern University and a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from MIT. BST is an international performance solutions consulting firm specializing in comprehensive approaches to workplace exposure reduction. The company has helped to implement safety solutions at more than 2,000 sites in 49 countries. More information is available by calling 805-646-4595 or visiting