Safety & Leadership

How often do leaders think about safety? For many corporate leaders, the primary focus is on business performance – the next quarter’s financial results and shareholder returns. For those firms with a longer-term outlook, there’ll be other considerations as they look at the sustainability of their business over decades, and of course all major firms now report on their impact on the planet and society. But above all these priorities sits the most important of all – safety.

In our latest white paper, produced in partnership with MANAGEMENT FORCE Group, a safety consulting firm, we look at the role of leaders in building a culture where safety is incorporated into everything they do. 

This doesn’t just mean physical safety, vital as that is. Creating a really strong safety culture involves more than just compliance with regulations. Staff must also feel safe in speaking out, challenging management and in taking risks. Some argue that a safety culture conflicts with innovation and creativity – two things essential to most business success: in this paper we suggest the opposite is true. Great leadership means finding that “sweet spot”   where leaders provide the perfect balance of safety with the encouragement of risk-taking.

And as Georgios Panopoulos of Management Force Group explains, it also makes good business sense, quite apart from the moral and legal imperatives. His research shows that in the long-run, a great safety culture will save a business time and money. The paper also covers some practical ideas for leaders at all levels to embed safety into everything they do, as well as looking at the different steps towards safety excellence.

Download the full paper here.


  1. Anonymous says:

    On the safety front, coming from an Instrumentation and Control background, safety in control management was always paramount in our industry and difficult to manage with keyboard button pressing millennials continuously trying to operate plants from their desktop or worse from home. However the aspect of safety with risk taking and challenging is another subject entirely. I always felt at “home” challenging our management where and when I felt it necessary since I always had a self confidence that I knew what I was doing and a suspicion that my management team did not know what I was doing or capable of. I did not always win the initial argument but over time I believe they realised that I always had their and the business best interest in view.

    Taking risks is an area that needs to be closely managed. Normally I would consider myself to be risk averse but always prepared to take on board new technology and experiment with state of the art equipment (but in a safe mode where no harm could come if it all went pear shaped). However I would never advocate the taking of risks where the consequences of failure were unknown. By doing that you end up in a situation such as Chernobyl, Piper Alpha and Deep Water Horizon etc. (to reference failures caused by human error in industry). Also we have seen major failures in the financial world caused by risk taking, not fatal in terms of human life unless you throw yourself off a building, but disastrous in regard damaging reputation and the finances of many millions of individuals who have invested their money in your company. Without taking risks, advancement and progress may well be stifled but before taking that risk a full assessment needs to be made of the consequences of failure as well as the benefits of success.

    Technology and digitisation are subjects close to my heart (at least whilst I was gainfully employed). Two topics come to mind that cannot be glossed over and that is security and reliability. When I was busy spending project capital (when I had some) on digital sensing and control systems there were too many protocols all fighting for top position. This went on for many years when all I wanted to do was pick a device off the shelf, plug it in and away it went but oh no, trying to standardise on a communication protocol and language that all devices could easily connect to was practically very difficult and very slow to improve. Each company was trying to compete instead of standardise. My son advises me it is getting better but no where near where it needs to be. Obviously people cannot make as much money by being one of a large family but this also doesn’t help technology development when a collaboration into research can be far more efficient than a single entity trying to wade through with financial limitations on budget.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Over the years, I have witnessed the evolution of safety in the energy industry and a number of specific examples of good and bad practice come to mind.

    In the late 1960s, when I joined a refinery, there were a number of safety related incidents that illustrate various issues.

    There was a safety awareness scheme for all departments whereby at the end of each quarter, coupons were awarded for “no incident” performance. Everyone was organised into a group and the group was awarded the coupons. If one member of the group was involved in a negative safety incident, everyone in the group lost their coupons for that quarter. The coupons could be exchanged for things like towels and tea-sets from a catalogue One member of the process engineering group cut the palm of his hand whilst in a phenol plant in the older part of the refinery. He concealed this so as not to cause the group to lose their coupons. The wound festered and eventually his hand had to be amputated. The incident caused a massive rethink of the refinery’s approach to safety within its employees. This is a good example of “wrong drivers”.

    Not long after this, a tank contractor was working in the lube oil tank farm building 8 new tanks. There were to be 14 strakes and safety procedures said that no more than two strakes could be erected with spot welds before the seams were fully welded. There was a little time pressure on the new build as the refinery was also building a new MEK de-waxer and the new tanks were needed to handle new base stocks and new finished products. The contractor independently decided to erect 6 strakes with spot welds before completing seams and then proceeded to add more as each lower strake was welded meaning that there were always 6 strakes above the fully welded level. The refinery safety inspection missed this because the contractor had been on site many times before and had a good safety record, so they let them get on with the job unchecked. One afternoon, a squally storm struck up and gusts up to 55mph were recorded in the refinery. Two of the unfinished tanks collapsed and 6 men were killed and two others severely injured. A very protracted legal case followed and massive changes were eventually made to responsibilities for work practices of onsite contractors and client supervision thereof. This is a good example of assuming things are OK and complacency in compliance policing. The procedures were fine, just not followed.

    There were three other major incidents which show the futility of procedure driven safety if the overall picture is not understood.

    For example, a tanker needed to be loaded with 18,000 tonnes of naphtha. The vessel came in late and the customer called to say that he needed the cargo the following evening latest which meant that the loading time would have to be about 12 hours instead of the normal 18-24 hours. There was a hastily convened safety meeting covering a faster berthing procedure, extra operators on the pump stations, extra operators on tanks to check floating roof travel and venting and so. High speed loading started and not long after, the tanker blew up. Later investigations showed the problem to be excessive static electricity buildup causing a spark in the tanker cargo holds which contained naphtha vapour and air. A deeper investigation showed that the previous practice of having an 18-24 hour loading time was to keep the linear velocity in the loading lines below a certain threshold that lowered the build up of static during the first 6 hours of loading before ramping it up to finish. Unfortunately, the man who had set that rule had already retired and the rational had been omitted from loading procedures. This incident resulted in a new procedure to debrief operators, and in particular, retiring operators, to make sure that important actual procedures were also important recorded procedures.

    A Platformer had a catastrophic furnace failure resulting in a total loss fire. The cause was the failure of 16 welds on the furnace outlet tubes resulting in the spillage of super heated light naphtha and an explosion and massive fire. The plant had just restarted after a major turnaround. The whole project had been subjected to endless safety reviews and had gone without incident right up to the furnace failure. Later investigations showed that the welds had failed because incompatible materials had been welded together and a completely wrong technique used. The welding, installation, startup and initial operation had all been subject to saturation safety inspection to make sure that procedures had been followed. Unfortunately, at a very early stage, the wrong materials were specified and not discovered until too late. At first, it was though that two operators had died in the fire and been incinerated to extinction. This view was overturned when the duty manager (me) went to inform their widows of the death of their husbands. At the first house, the “dead” husband answered the door and said that he and the other missing guy were fine but after the shock of the explosion decided that the best thing to do was to go home. The only injury was a broken jaw inflicted by the duty manager on the “dead” man as punishment for putting him through the trauma of a house visit to an assumed widow. This incident resulted in a complete revision of design review checklists to try and avoid material incompatibility problems (and of course muster rules, not to mention a bollocking for the duty manager for using “unnecessary” violence).

    A Cat Cracker (Mk 4) had an incident one Christmas Eve. The refinery had been converted to DDC not long before and was operating on a skeleton night crew. The operator noticed that the regenerator pressure on the Cat Cracker was falling and the DDC system was prompting him to confirm startup of the auxiliary blowers, which he did. The pressure fall slowed down but did not recover. It was a very foggy night and the top of the Cat Cracker (some 400 feet up) was lost in the clouds. After a while, another operator, who had been out taking some samples for the lab, came running in to say that the top of the Cat Cracker seemed to be shining with an orange light. The top dish plate of the regenerator had in fact suffered a failed weld and had shifted sideways (all 25 ft diameter of it) and the unit was well on fire. The DDC was still prompting the startup of another auxiliary blower. The operator ignored that and put the plant into a shutdown sequence. The DDC for the whole refinery was revised to incorporate inputs from infrared sensors at many strategic locations and operator patrols were instigated to check upper levels of certain plants.

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