INSIGHT: Sustaining a corporate safety culture

30 April 2008 16:51  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS news)--Getting the safety culture right is vitally important as every chemicals operator knows.

Site workers need to understand procedures but also "buy in" to the safety ethic. Safe plants work well and a safe working environment is more efficient. You cannot afford to cut costs if the lives of personnel and the very existence of the company are at stake.

Yet the question has to be asked time and again whether workers and managers truly understand this.

A key point was raised at a major process industries safety conference held in London this week.

The absence of conventional safety accidents and injuries in the past few years should not, in itself, be taken as a positive assurance of an overall improvement in process safety across the major hazards industry, the UK's Health & Safety Executive said.

Companies in the UK and elsewhere have worked extremely hard to guard against lost time accidents and fatalities. At times it has seemed, however, that as production plant safety conditions have improved, and international standards applied, attention has shifted away from major accident hazards.

Companies in the chemicals sector, and in other major process industries, run sometimes risky operations that have to be managed well.

In recent years particularly, in the UK a great deal of attention has been paid to areas such as contractor and distribution or haulage safety to help improve company-wide occupational safety statistics.

Yet the question has been asked whether the pendulum has swung too far one way?

Safety is not an area in which you can ever afford take your eye off the ball.

“Corporate memory loss” is a major factor in the failure of health and safety strategies across the chemicals and other hazardous industries, the HSE said.

Companies may not have been pre-occupied with occupational safety but, the UK regulator believes, have failed to take on-board the results of investigations carried out after process incidents have taken place.

Many safety breaches are not unique. They involve the failure of alarms, undetected faults or leaks, or are simply due to a lack of inspection.

Companies have undergone major change – of ownership and personnel. Some plants, and workers, are ageing and there are skill shortages in key trades and professions.

Costs are being driven down as never before and other production pressures are building.

The HSE, rightly, says that, against this backdrop, a significant challenge for business leaders is the creation of a long term sustainable safety culture.

Leadership credibility takes a long time to build, but can be lost in an instant, it adds.

Yet also, as one of the key themes emerging from the conference implied, process safety cannot be left to be managed simply from the boardroom.

“Senior managers need to walk the talk and listen to the frontline staff,” the executive says.

Not everyone understands why process safety is so important and, indeed, just what it is. But key performance indicators can help.

Safety goals may be driven from the top but need to be understood throughout the organisation.

As one of the most hazardous, the chemicals sector stands out. Many companies have exemplary safety records but there is an ever present opportunity for disaster.

Managers may lead by example but the safety culture has to permeate the business to be effective. Employees are at the forefront of safety protection. They need the tools and the environment in which to help develop safer and more effective working and operating practices.

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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