Understanding safety culture

How do you balance chronic unease and confidence when managing safety?

Gary Moon - Portrait - BW - 200x250
by Garry Moon

A few months ago I was delivering a workshop to help shore management and offshore leaders to better understand safety culture. My aim as an Occupational Psychologist is to help individuals in the group change unhelpful core beliefs – or at least put them on that path by challenging their safety values and understanding of safety incidents.

Prior to the workshop, the participants were requested to answer a safety climate assessment. One of the most important questions in that assessment is the one that gives me an integrate indication of the level of chronic unease or complacency in the organisation. It does this by assessing if people think something could seriously go wrong - not “will”, but “could”. Nearly half the people who responded to the survey did not feel a serious event could happen at their workplace. But this particular workplace was not an office. This workplace involved the management of large inventories of hydrocarbons in man-made structures far out to sea. I am sure you will agree that there are probably safer working environments than this.

Further investigation found that the most complacent group was the senior personnel working offshore. This was a strange finding – why would the most experienced and competent personnel not believe a serious incident could occur? We have an awareness scale in our survey. It tells me how much each group understands about specific aspects of safety. Senior personnel working offshore were one of the most aware groups. So why was a group with good safety awareness also the most complacent?

At the workshop, I discussed this with a number of senior offshore personnel. The most representative view of the group was given by one Chief Engineer who said to me, "Our safety management system is excellent, our safety practices are effective and our people are competent – this prevents a serious incident occurring." This is not an uncommon view, but very different to the response from the captain of a dive support vessel who took part in the pilot of our survey 3 years ago. When given the same question, he said," I don’t get this question . . . I sit on a ship hundreds of miles from land, surrounded by a substance I cannot walk on or live in. Of course we could have a serious incident." His conclusion was that the question was stupid. I suppose that depends on your perspective. Different perspectives, different beliefs – but probably a similar awareness, particularly of the risks. So what was different?

I have seen a lack of chronic unease many times. But I have also accidently created it once. For a number of years I worked with a small team of offshore personnel to improve the reliability of the team. This included changes to procedures, culture development and minor - but significant - changes to the way they operated as a team. The result, after 18 months, was that the team believed they were invincible. Their procedures and practices were excellent, so was their discipline and commitment to those practices.

But two things happened during those 18 months. The first was that their confidence in their safety systems grew – their procedures, their working practices. The second was that they started to believe that they and their colleagues would not make a mistake that would lead to a serious incident. This was in part propagated by the organisation disseminating information of trivial incidents (normally slips trips and cuts), while the team was conducting weekly desk top simulations of complex loss-of-containment scenarios. There were also many other subtle factors for driving their confidence - their safety performance, the continuous praise they received from management for both their safety and non-safety related performance, the fact that the team was asked to train new people in the region – to name just a few.

Whether through arrogance, desensitisation to the risks, or a poor understanding of human error, they lost the belief that something could go wrong, that a procedure could have an error in it, that safety systems could fail, or that people might make a mistake. Nothing negative happened in this team. We recognised the complacency early, but during a period of about 18 months what I and the onshore and offshore leaders did facilitated the team in losing what keeps us most safe – a continual wariness of the hazards, a sense of chronic unease.

I suppose the moral of this story and the reason I wanted to share it was that in pursuit of safety improvement, we create confidence in our systems and the people running them. Since our goal is improvement, all involved, particularly leaders, will look to confirm improvement is occurring - goal setting theory and confirmation bias tell us this. But we must not forget that even the most knowledgeable and well-meaning individuals, if too close to the initiative, will be blind to loss of chronic unease, seeing it instead as confidence and progress. This is why I believe it is so dangerous and a causal factor in so many incidents, a causal factor normally identified in incident reports by the word ‘complacency’.

by Garry Moon, Occupational Psychologist, Principal Consultant

Process Safety Management

Recent experience emphasises that process safety incidents can have a devastating effect on people, assets, the environment, as well as the long-term viability of a business. To safeguard against such incidents, we work with operators to map out their strengths and weaknesses and develop a prioritised improvement plan.

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