Leading the Way to Process Safety

The Basic Ingredient in Any Process Safety Program Is Strong Leadership.

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By Peter Montagna

“Leadership” is a hot topic in the process industries. So is process safety. The two really go together. With strong leadership, process safety programs will succeed and their benefits will spread like ripples in a pond. Productivity and morale will increase. Incidents will diminish. The plant will be welcome in the community.
With strong leadership, a process safety program can achieve many goals. It can satisfy shareholders and company management with improved productivity and profitability; satisfy the community with fewer incidents; and satisfy employees with a healthy and safe working environment.

So, just what is “strong leadership?”

Individuals put into  leadership positions in technical organizations generally have demonstrated strong technical knowledge or good managerial skills. Unfortunately, these are vastly different from the skills that make strong leaders. Managers and leaders have different perspectives. Good managers are those who do things right, while good leaders are those who do the right things. The good news is, leadership skills can be learned. For every “born leader” out there, there are many who work hard at sharpening their skills throughout their careers.

Warren G. and Warren Bennis in their book, On Becoming a Leader, say that for a process safety specialist or manager to be a good leader, he or she must do the following:

  1. Engage others by creating shared meaning. The leader must be richly endowed with empathy.
  2. Speak with a distinctive voice. Leaders have purpose, self-confidence and a strong sense of their own strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Possess integrity. Leaders have unimpeachable ethics and a strong moral compass.
  4. Be adaptable. Leaders act first, using a compass (not a map), then evaluate the results. They make corrections, if necessary, and then take action again.

Getting It Done

The cost of incidents alone should be enough to motivate company officials to mandate robust process safety systems. Incidents cause work stoppages, material loss, waste, equipment damage and, unfortunately, sometimes employee injuries or even fatalities. Beyond costs, companies that suffer safety incidents damage their public image and employee morale. Sometimes they’re subject to regulatory action. In some cases, however, robust process safety systems aren’t mandated and may not even be welcome!

The process safety specialist in charge of developing or improving a company’s process safety system has an impressive challenge. This individual may face resistance by the company’s upper management. Let’s face it—safety costs money. Safety slows down production and reduces productivity, since people will now be involved in what might be perceived as non-value added activities. And few of us like change.

Much has been written about how the safety professional must make the business case for safety and “sell” upper management on the ideas and associated requirements of a robust process safety system. But where does he or she start?

John Kotter, in What Leaders Really Do, says successful organizational change of any kind follows well-documented processes. First,  create a sense of urgency throughout the organization through a campaign of education and communication. Leaders engage people with compelling messages that are spoken with purpose and self-confidence. It’s that simple. Others will follow when the message is delivered with both empathy and strength.

Then the process safety specialist leader has to form a team and help it create a compelling vision that clearly states what the organization’s safety program must achieve to be successful. From this vision, the team then develops specific measurable and verifiable goals. Most important, the team must show how these goals will make a positive impact on the firm’s profitability—that is, how compliance with process safety programs will improve productivity, or how noncompliance will cost the company in the form of incidents and possible regulatory action.

Next, empower employees at all levels to act out the vision and broadly advertise short-term successes. This will lend credibility to the program, while disempowering critics and cynics. The process safety leader must facilitate and support these efforts, especially where fear or anxiety cause resistance.

For the cultural and organizational change to take root and grow, short-term successes must continue. Momentum builds, leading to the tackling of larger and more difficult challenges. As programs are developed and implemented, the organization will look toward the leader for assurance and continued direction. Consistency is important, but integrity is critical. As resistance to change becomes stronger, the leader may need to acquiesce to maintain cooperation. At all times, however, the process safety leader must maintain unimpeachable integrity. We all know the difference between what is right and what is a compromise. Admittedly, sometimes a compromise is needed, but this compromise must be a short-term concession to achieve the larger goal.

This process takes time—lots and lots of time—so the process safety leader must have patience. The leader must also be empathetic and supportive. People will want to see the value in their efforts. They may misunderstand the change and its implications or feel that the change is illogical or nonsensical. They will resist change just because it is change. Trust may decrease. Strong managers can force the change and impose their will, but results will be mixed. A good leader will attempt to understand this resistance and take appropriate actions to diffuse it. The strong leader will transform the organization by showing how good the change can be, and people will embrace it, and it will become permanent. 

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