What does a safe culture look like for the oil and gas industry? It’s not an easy question to answer. For decades, the energy industry proclaimed its high safety standards - yet still encountered devastating oil spills and ecological disasters.
In the late 1990s, ExxonMobil took a hard look at its culture’s contributions to persistent oilfield hazards. After a rigorous study, ExxonMobil concluded that a safe culture starts from the inside out, not the outside in. As the company’s CEO, Darren W. Woods put it:
You cannot buy a safety culture off the shelf. You have to craft it yourself.
To help oil and gas companies design their own unique strategies, The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) established 9 characteristics of a company with a safe culture. Every operation accomplishes these differently, but the overall result is a culture of safety.
Here they are, one by one. See if your worksites have these qualities, and use them as guidelines for shaping your culture.
1. Leadership commitment to safety values and actions
Do your leaders set high standards for safety and practice what they preach? If not, reshaping the attitudes of top management should be your first priority. Company leaders should be safety opinion leaders, cheerleaders for safety reporting, and good stewards to the environment.
2. Work environment built around respect
An overall respectful work environment sets the stage for a safe culture, but some oil and gas companies can seem more respectful at the top than the bottom. Does a remote worksite feel like a respectful place in the same way that your corporate office does?
Confidential employee surveys can help reveal workers’ true feelings. Look for company scores on values like trust, loyalty, teamwork, and collaboration.
3. Support for raising concerns
Every worker across the operation should feel comfortable mentioning safety hazards and maintenance concerns the see during day-to-day work. Rather than being seen as tattletales, they should be hailed as heroes. The BSEE describes the safest type of culture as one “without fear of retaliation, intimidation, harassment, or discrimination.”
4. Effective safety and environmental communication
Take a moment to think about how your safety plan is communicated to new workers and those who have language barriers. In operations with poor safety cultures, workers can only give vague descriptions about the company’s commitment to safety. Particularly at far-flung operations in remote areas, there can be communication issues. Set crystal clear expectations and communicate them effectively.
#5: Empowerment and personal accountability
Workers should be empowered to report safety hazards and held accountable for maintaining safety standards. Risky solutions, like workarounds, should be discouraged and workers should be retrained when risk-taking behavior is observed. This should all happen in a way that feels upbeat and positive, not punitive.
#6: Welcoming attitude toward inquiring minds
Culture studies at oil and gas operations have revealed that complacency is a major issue that interferes with safety. Combat complacency by encouraging workers to ask questions and investigate things they consider suspicious, rather than making assumptions. Reward inquiring behavior, especially when it leads to improved safety measures.
#7: Hazard identification and risk management
The company should have an active role in risk management, where safety issues are identified, analyzed, and addressed with urgency. Worksite hazards shouldn’t be brushed aside or minimized; they should be tackled head-on. Every protocol should drive toward safety rather than other factors that increase risk, like speed, quantity, and deadlines.
#8: Proper work processes
The old worksite adage correct equipment for correct work applies here. When employees aren’t given the right safety gear, you can’t expect them to complete their work safely. Conduct a thorough worksite safety audit that reveals availability of safety equipment and any improper processes taking place.
#9: Dedication to continuous improvement
A true culture of safety doesn’t strive for quick fixes. It adheres to the idea of continuous improvement, where the process itself is continually reevaluated and adjusted. Building a safe culture takes time. Your company must be willing to look ahead 1 year, 5 years, even 20 years down the road - all in the spirit of safety.