It’s hard to believe that four years ago, I stepped into the role here at Step Change in Safety. Like my New Year’s resolutions, my hopes and the reality didn’t always align. Since day one, there have been many successes and Step Change’s strategic priorities have evolved. But, sadly, there have been tragic and stark reminders of just how much is still to be done.
Step Change has been founded on values of collaboration, community, leadership, learning and stewardship. These values have guided us through the challenges presented by events and incidents. Priorities may change but values don’t.
So, as we start what is predicted to be the toughest year yet, I thought I’d share my four safety leadership reflections from the past four years.
Responsibility: In a hierarchical organisational structure, leadership needs to go beyond the traditional organigram. We all need to consider what distributed leadership looks like. The CEO, VP of Finance or HR, OIM, foreman or work party leader have very different levels of authority, but they have their own ability to set a tone, influence an outcome or create a safety culture – be it for one task or the entire organisation. At an individual level, it comes down to asking one question: “What’s my contribution to safety?” For many, this is intangible and people will not see the risks they are part of managing.
Awareness: As a leader – at any level and in any department – do you understand and manage your safety risk? If you just focus on LTIs, you run the risk of only receiving good news, or measuring conventional health and safety failures. While it’s good to focus on these issues, it’s easy to miss inherent hazards. There is little point in an improving LTI performance if you have a huge man-hours backlog on safety critical maintenance, or your hydrocarbon releases are increasing. Leaders need to understand and see the risks in their business, and take responsibility for managing them. Linking to responsibility, this needs to go beyond operational and safety roles.
Attitude: Leaders set the standards for the team, and whatever the standard is, the team follows. Everything they do or don’t do, say or don’t say, is always observed, judged and acted upon by others. Leaders need to be aware of their impact. Leaders need to drive engagement with safety and be visible – not just onshore but offshore too. We all need to create safety involvement by being visible, providing the necessary support and ensuring that we get our communications right.
Orientation: We talk a lot about continuous improvement and learning lessons. But sadly, it too often takes an incident for individuals, organisations or the entire industry to respond. As a leader, where do you spend your time? You should be going out of your way to foster an intervention culture; correcting mistakes and dealing with things that have gone wrong. But that’s not all: as a leader, you have to listen and learn. If something has gone wrong, it is an opportunity to learn. It’s too easy to be resistive and say “that couldn’t happen here”. These lessons need to be taught and communicated. If there’s a subsequent incident, or a need to correct or intervene, it’s a reasonable assumption that there has been a failure to teach and communicate. If there’s a failure to teach and communicate, there’s been a failure to listen and learn. And if there’s a failure to listen and learn, then there’s no culture of engagement. A responsive orientation means we all need to return to our ‘learning’ – your incident or accident is my incident or accident. It’s a collective responsibility.
So my four questions for you to reflect on as we head into 2016, regardless of whether you’re an employer, employee, regulator or trade union official, are:
1. What’s your contribution to safety?
2. Are you aware of inherent safety hazards?
3. How does your attitude influence others’ engagement with safety?
4. How will you foster a safety culture which allows for listening, learning, teaching and communicating?