California Refinery Report – Importance of Safety Culture – 2/17/14

 In Tip of the Week

Following a major incident at a local refinery our state (California) undertook a major effort to examine the safety of petrochemical refineries throughout the state. The Taskforce leading this effort recently released their report, which you can view here:

Now the report covers many areas related to refinery and public safety, but one of the recommendations from the Taskforce that caught our eye was the recommendation to have organizations conduct regular assessments of their safety culture. Safety culture is a word that gets thrown around a lot in our industry and sometimes has different meanings to different people. Essentially, a safety culture is what you do and why you do it when no one is looking relative to safety.

Now, really something like safety culture shouldn’t matter. In a perfect world where everyone knows and follows the safety rules, there are no other pressures, such as production, that compete with safety, and there is no uncertainty in the things we do there is no need for a safety culture.

The problem is we don’t live in a perfect world. No one wants to get hurt, but everyone has so many goals and pressures that compete with safety that it becomes too easy to put safety to the side because, let’s face it, most of the time nothing bad happens. That’s why we need an effective safety culture though. An effective safety culture in an organization creates additional motivation for people to do what, deep down, they know they should be doing. In an organization with an effective safety culture when the pressures of production and schedule and cost start to build up, the safety culture creates a buffer that allows the employees to adapt to the pressures in a way that keeps the risks as low as feasible, rather than giving in to those pressures.

So how do you know where your safety culture is? Well, start by asking yourself a few questions:

When in the middle of an important project, or when the schedules are crunched do people often cut corners by ignoring a few safety rules here and there?

Are people afraid to stop a job that they feel is unsafe because they fear reprisals from others for slowing down the job?

Are workers scared to report hazards, near-misses, and/or accidents?

When incidents are investigated are line workers typically identified as the primary cause of the accident (e.g. “human error”)?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, there’s likely some gaps in your safety culture. The good news is that if your safety culture is struggling you can fix it! Typically the best approach to building a safety culture is to start with an assessment of where your gaps are and to come up with a plan to fill those gaps. But if you’re just looking for a good place to start, look at those questions above again – are there any things you can do to turn any yeses or even the maybes to firm no’s? Anything you can do to build trust and learning in the organization often goes a long way toward building that culture.

If you need help in the process let us know. We are experts at helping to build effective safety cultures in organizations.

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