One of the most valuable things to come out of all of the studies and reports that followed the Deepwater Horizon tragedy was a push for improved safety culture. It marked a recognition that new regulations, increased training and improvements to technology would only have limited success if the company working offshore couldn’t pull all of those pieces together into one coherent approach. It is like weaving different strands of yarn together into on piece of fabric. We call that fabric the company safety culture.
In the last month, a group called the National Academy of Sciences, which was tasked by government regulators to study offshore safety culture, came out with its final report. You can access it here and anyone who cares about offshore safety should read it.
Unfortunately, it received very little attention from the industry, the media or even the government officials who asked for it. The group made a number of important observations and recommendations, including:
- Leadership on safety culture is uneven. Some companies have fostered very strong cultures, but with others, “Leaders who reward productivity but do not consistently recognize safety performance or send intentional or unintentional messages that safety is not a priority, is too expensive, or is an effort made only to comply with regulations create an environment in which a strong safety culture (and safety) cannot be properly maintained or strengthened.”
- There is no one ‘Offshore Industry.’ A lot of companies with a lot of roles means there is no shared understanding of safety. “Because of their differing safety perspectives and economic interests, offshore oil
and gas companies do not all belong to a single industry association that speaks with one voice regarding safety. The fragmented nature of the industry, heterogeneity among companies, and diversity among employees make it a challenge to set consistent goals and implement them through industry-wide agreements. “
- Regulators have a hard time understanding and enforcing culture. Not a knock against the government agencies, but regulators do best when they enforce concrete, quantifiable standards, not squishy softskills. As the report says, ” One challenge for all regulators is changing the mind-set of inspectors from inspecting for compliance to advocating safety culture. To this end, inspectors’ skill set will need to be developed such that they are able to help offshore companies implement a safety culture philosophy.”
The real problem and the reason why this report may have received so little attention may be that concepts like safety culture are so hard to nail down and so difficult to change. For starters, every company has a safety culture already. It is just that some of them are not very good. For example, a company that believes that accidents happen and there isn’t much you can do about it, just described a really bad safety culture.
Additionally, offshore E&P is largely an engineer’s world and things like safety culture, human factors and behavioral psychology don’t fit very well on a spreadsheet. It reminds me of a meeting that offshore regulators had with industry representatives some years ago. The official said, “We will be lenient if the company was making a best-faith effort to comply with the regulations,” to which an oil company engineer asked, “What does the ‘best-faith effort’ form look like?” Energy industry and regulators alike always take a compliance approach and safety culture doesn’t fit in that box.
The classic definition of a safety culture is one that starts with safety commitment at the top, has open communications throughout the organization and is constantly looking for ways to improve safety. But there are plenty of companies where the C-suite doesn’t get involved in deck-level safety but have good records because the front-line workers watch out for each other. Similarly, we know companies that look like they are doing everything right and have a string of unfortunate incidents.
In my experience, the critical factor is whether the supervisors are committed and how they perceive their role in protecting their crews. I see them as safety culture “gurus.” Management needs supervisors and mid-level managers to be the leaders on safety. When they are doing their jobs right, front-line workers model their behavior. They are the people who are most likely to recognize hazards on scene and they are the people you need to listen to when a new process is implemented in the company.
The most immediate problem we find in the oil and gas industry right now is the impact of low prices and cuts on safety culture. I maintain that safety done right does not have to be prohibitively expensive. But it is perceived as a cost center and so safety programs are vulnerable. The National Academy report recognizes this threat: “The cyclic nature of the offshore oil and gas industry translates to frequent reductions in experienced staff during downturns and subsequent employment and training of relatively inexperienced workers during upturns.”
One thing is clear, safety culture is not a mathematical formula or a recipe for baking brownies. Each company is different. It is like a famous quote from a Supreme Court Justice in an obscenity case. He said he couldn’t define it, but “I know it when I see it.”
Where is your safety culture? Does your company send one coherent message on safety to your employees, your customers and government regulators? If you would like to talk about improving safety culture or identifying proven steps to integrating safety throughout your organization, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.