Health & Safety – Paying lip service to health and safety targets and culture? At what cost?

A recent study by Aberdeen based oil and gas software firm Petrotechnics (‘Feeling the Squeeze: the state of process safety risk and operational risk management’) revealed that only 73% of planned safety critical maintenance in the high hazard oil and gas sector is carried out per month according to the 100 industry leaders who took part.

The reasons for the indicated shortfall were blamed on a combination of cost pressures caused by a downturn in the price of oil but also on a ‘resource tension’ between safety related projects and other capital expenditure. The report noted that ‘despite best intentions, safety culture remains ineffective in practice’.

This is concerning, if this is the situation in the oil and gas sector where we would hope to find the most stringent of health and safety standards being adhered to in conjunction with a robust and inclusive health and safety culture then how might these gaps between organisational expectations and the delivered daily reality compare with lower risk working environments where safety expectations are perhaps not quite so rigorous?

Managers paying lip service to safety targets and aspirations and then failing to deliver them claiming insufficient time (or other resources) when juggling numerous organisational responsibilities is unfortunately a common excuse. In many cases those tasked with delivering safety related goals will also have defined operational targets (production, financial, etc.) competing for their attention, targets which potentially they will be will be measured on under the organisations appraisal arrangements and this where ‘resource tension’ can creep in and the aspired to, or claimed, safety culture unravels and becomes ineffective. This ineffectiveness is amplified when employees tasked with following prescribed systems of work and demonstrating safe working behaviours observe managers diverting from their safety responsibilities they then start to question ‘if they don’t bother then why should I?’.

This erosion of safety culture creates an environment where the cost of not doing something is considered an acceptable risk, and have these risks been appropriately ‘balanced’ against the potential costs should something go wrong? A further consideration is who is actually making these decisions on what is and isn’t acceptable and are these decisions being made in isolated pockets or shared and agreed across the organisation?

Does the working environment and the magnitude of risk involved in the delivery of operations make paying lip service to safety targets and aspirations more acceptable for example comparing operations on an oil production facility with operating a care home for the elderly?

If an organisation, regardless of risk profile (and size), has safety targets and aspirations then surely these must have equal or greater standing with other organisational goals (one of the foundations of a successful safety culture) and the appropriate resources identified and actually made available for their delivery.  Resources should also be made available to measure that all safety objectives are being met and the relevant authority delegated to challenge and resolve where deficiencies or violations have been recognised.

In the context of your own organisation if you have identified that ‘despite best intentions, safety culture remains ineffective in practice’ are the potential risks involved in carrying on an acceptable cost? one you are willing to take responsibility for or will you be responsible to do something about it?

If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Gary Foggo.

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