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How to change your safety culture

Oct. 27, 2016
Interpersonal dynamics can be as important as training when it comes to preventing industrial accidents.

Installing process safety equipment and software? Easy. Getting people, groups and organizations to change their attitudes and habits? Close to impossible. So what can be done? Deliberate, persistent and targeted training, retraining, simulation and encouraging safety team members to speak up and intervene when needed.

“Seventy-five percent of accidents in industry are traceable to organizational and human factors,” said Travis Hesketh, marketing vice president for Europe, Emerson Automation Solutions. “In 2014, there were more than 3.7 million recordable injuries and 4,679 deaths in U.S. industries, costing $212 billion. So, have you really thought about the impact and relevance of human factors in handovers, maintenance and documentation, environment, managing ambiguity, ignoring warning signals, and the team leader role?”

Annison and Hesketh investigated the human factors in business culture that can cause or prevent a disaster at Emerson Global Users Exchange.

“About 60% of all accidents or serious incidents occur within 30 minutes of a shift change, so we have to ask what key handovers are happening in our environments,” explained Julian Annison, principal industry consultant, Emerson Automation Solutions. “Are they recognized? Do we have a formal process in place? And how are we recording them?

“We also need to know what’s the quality of our permit to work (PTW) handback, and is shift handover structured, given proper time and location? Finally, we also need to address how we’re using modern tools to facilitate or automate handovers.”

And because it’s often feast or famine when it comes to process safety information, Annison recommended that users examine how they secure the right data and get it to the right people in the way that’s best for them to understand.

One of the biggest factors contributing to process safety incidents is the staff’s working environment, which includes time crunches, conflicting personalities and the agitation and stress they generate. However, many of these work-setting issues remain stubbornly hard to tackle because they’re some one of the least discussed and understood problems.

And because no process application or facility runs perfectly all the time, operators and engineers always have to manage their plants with something that isn’t working properly. As a result, they must be aware of the conflicts and consequences this improper situation could cause and resolve them.

[sidebar id =1]Though everyone in the process industries understands the surface aspects and issues of alarm overload and prioritization, Annison reported that many procedures for handling them remain unresolved, even basic policies such as how to report key alarms to operators, managers and maintenance.

“The main question is: Can the teams recognize those top-level, infrequent alarms? And will they know what to do?” asked Annison. “More recently, many alarms have become like a social-media deluge in recent years, and this is a big problem because a control room during a major incident is the true definition of data overload, as operators try to decide what to do. This is very difficult to overcome.”

Despite some gains in social equality and organizational politeness in recent years, Annison reported that process safety teams still need leaders and experienced followers, which means pecking orders still inevitably develop.

“Working culture and perceived hierarchies still occur in all teams,” added Annison. “On static teams, individual personalities become dominant, and positive and negative consequences happen.”

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To address these safety issues and improve these factors, Annison added it’s vital for leaders to challenge their teams in three primary areas:

Authority gradient: Ask if anyone is on a pedestal and why. Who’s driving decisions through on dubious ground? Who always gets their way? Update responsibilities, and remind team members about expectations for them to intervene.

Empowerment: Do all team members understand their responsibilities and obligations to speak and act? Team members must consider training others and themselves, where needed, and do it in a language that gives power to intervene in any situation. They must also support intervention by others. “Team members must learn to intervene when necessary, even against the will of a powerful leader,” said Annison.

Training: To maintain genuine safety competency, Annison advises teams to reexamine how well they actually train their members. This means getting beyond multiple-choice tests and stamping certificates; determining the best learning methods for each member; investigating if the training really increased competency; and especially including training in abnormal situations.

Annison concluded, “So, is it possible to change the culture of process safety team members? The answer is ‘yes’ because there are a lot of positives. Pilots need to learn more than flying in a straight line; they need to learn takeoffs, landings and abnormal situations; and the same goes for process safety teams. We’re fortunate that now we can set up virtual plants and processes to demonstrate and evaluate competence.”

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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