All too frequently we hear of major incidents where there has been loss of life, injury and considerable financial loss. This week it was the turn of Chevron’s refinery in Wales. Last year we had the big blow out in the Gulf Of Mexico with BP. These events often happen in the petrochemical industry – they also happen in many other industries where there is a big safety requirement – rail (Potters Bar), construction (Heathrow tunnel) to name a couple.
The reports emerge and there is often talk of ‘short cuts’ and process ignored. Without taking a moral stance, my question is simply this. Is good safety incompatible with high productivity? From what we read it would sometimes seem that the answer is yes. I believe the answer is absolutely not! Good safety is good for business and good for productivity.
First take a look at these regular incidents. If people were taking ‘short cuts’ then surely that is a sign that their processes were either inadequate or not optimised. I don’t for a minute believe that anyone really encourages unsafe practice. But most people want the job done. So at this point the issue is one of process. A lot of safety process is a ‘bolt on’. There is the work process and there is the safety process. Rightly or wrongly they are sometimes seen as different and not an integral whole. This presents a huge opportunity. Firstly, to integrate the process. Everything that is required for safe working needs to be fully integrated into a single ‘how we do this’ working practice. When this is the case, safety becomes inherent and is much more likely to become part of the culture of an organisation instead of being an enforced extra. In addition a single integrated process is much easier to optimise as part of a whole than as part of a separate process.
A dilemma that then arises is how exactly do you monitor a work process where the safety elements are integrated rather than as part of a separate process. The answer to that is twofold. Firstly, safety experts must be part of the process development. Their expertise and the necessary requirements need to be built into the core process. Secondly, ownership and oversight of the whole process should lie with the workforce not safety experts. This will probably require supervisors to have a greater awareness of, expertise in and commitment to safety. Surely this is no bad thing!
If we are to be really serious about safety and make the best of the overall process in terms of productivity, then those who do the work have to be accountable for the safety part of the process. The safety experts need to be involved when a working process is set up. They also need to be there to provide ongoing support and expertise, and they still need to have their functions of check and audit.
Much of this may not sound a lot different to today. It is! and it would make a big difference to performance both safety and business!