EHS Management

Is Your Organizational Culture Undermining Your Process Safety Management Efforts?

In 2007, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) issued its final report on the 2005 explosion and fire at the BP Texas City Refinery. In addition to examining human factors and process safety deficiencies that directly contributed to the explosion, the CSB looked—for the first time in its history—directly at the corporate safety culture. The CSB concluded that “a dysfunctional safety culture existed at all levels of BP,” to the point that the implications of serious incidents at all BP facilities went unrecognized by senior leadership.

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Unfortunately, BP is not the only organization whose culture is standing in the way of effective process safety management (PSM). An examination of chemical process safety failures in the 34 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) identified “poor organizational culture” as a key failing of corporate governance in many of those incidents. The OECD developed a guidance document based on its investigation, Corporate Governance for Process Safety: Guidance for Senior Leaders in High Hazard Industries, that gives insight into the role that corporate safety culture plays in effective PSM.

The Short-Sighted Safety Culture

“Organizational culture” has been defined as “the way we do things around here.” In other words, it’s what you see when you take a bird’s-eye view of an organization’s practices. There is often a great deal of emphasis on workers’ safety behaviors in an environment with demanding PSM requirements, but the OECD notes that leadership is the key to all safe practices. “Process safety tasks may be delegated,” the OECD noted in its guidance document, “but responsibility and accountability will always remain with the senior leaders, so it is essential that they promote an environment which encourages safe behaviour.”

To create a culture that enables the identification and timely correction of process safety deficits before they become disasters, the OECD recommends that senior leaders:

  • Keep process safety on their agenda. When workers are required to monitor process safety data, but that information is never seen or acted on by senior leaders, workers will quickly adopt management’s attitude that it isn’t of any real importance.
  • Listen when concerns are raised—and encourage workers to raise any concerns that they have. Listening to and acting on workers’ concerns could have prevented many of the world’s greatest chemical disasters.
  • Be role models. Of course, in order to be a good role model, senior leaders must first of all be visible, getting out and meeting workers. When they do get out into the production facility, they must demonstrate an awareness of and concern for process safety issues and should challenge workers to identify weak areas and opportunities for improvement.
  • Be accountable. PSM is a detailed technical subject with many components, so management will have to delegate various PSM duties—but the buck should always stop in the boardroom or in the corner office. Senior leadership should retain ultimate responsibility and accountability for PSM.

It can take some doing to create a strong organizational culture in support of PSM, but the rewards far outweigh the costs—especially for those organizations that prevent a major PSM disaster.