Why it’s so Hard to get Safety Right – Part 2

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    Today’s New York Times published another in a string of articles highlighting safety issues on the Deepwater Horizon rig at the heart of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill crisis.

    A confidential survey of workers on the Deepwater Horizon in the weeks before the oil rig exploded showed that many of them were concerned about safety practices and feared reprisals if they reported mistakes or other problems.

    In the survey, commissioned by the rig’s owner, Transocean, workers said that company plans were not carried out properly and that they “often saw unsafe behaviors on the rig.”

    Some workers also voiced concerns about poor equipment reliability, “which they believed was as a result of drilling priorities taking precedence over planned maintenance,” according to the survey, one of two Transocean reports obtained by The New York Times.

    “At nine years old, Deepwater Horizon has never been in dry dock,” one worker told investigators. “We can only work around so much.”

    “Run it, break it, fix it,” another worker said. “That’s how they work.”

    In reacting to the allegations, note how the company responded:

    The spokesman, Lou Colasuonno, commenting on the 33-page report about workers’ safety concerns, noted that the Deepwater Horizon had seven consecutive years without a single lost-time incident or major environmental event.

    This statement highlights the challenge organizations have in creating a true safety culture. What went on at Deepwater Horizon happens across thousands of job sites across the country on a daily basis. The difference here is that the consequences for failure were so great.

    Making it through another day without incident is a misleading indicator of safety. Seven consecutive years without incident says little about the risk of what may happen tomorrow. More telling is the fear factor among the workers as to what are the real safety risks.

    Ethics Risks

    On the Deepwater Horizon the two primary ethics risk factors for safety seemed to be far outside normal limits: fear of reprisal and focus on the numbers vs. actual safety.

    Fear of Reprisal –

    As one worker wrote in the report;

    “I’m petrified of dropping anything from heights not because I’m afraid of hurting anyone (the area is barriered off), but because I’m afraid of getting fired.”

    Workers who feel intimidated not to report safety risks for fear of losing their jobs will think twice before saying anything that isn’t an immediate danger. However, on a ship as complex as the Deepwater Horizon, there are hundreds of systems and areas in which early signs of trouble are noticeable, but can be ignored on a daily basis without risk of immediate personal injury.

    Bureaucracy –

    The other issue that impacts safety is when the process of reporting incidents or near-misses becomes its own bureaucratic mess. Employees and managers become focused on the metrics, i.e. number of incidents, with the risk of losing sight of the underlying danger.

    Investigators also said “nearly everyone” among the workers they interviewed believed that Transocean’s system for tracking health and safety issues on the rig was “counter productive.”

    Many workers entered fake data to try to circumvent the system, known as See, Think, Act, Reinforce, Track — or Start. As a result, the company’s perception of safety on the rig was distorted, the report concluded.

    Many managers are penalized for too many incident reports being filed, creating pressure on them and their workers to not report.

    Real safety occurs when workers feel safe enough to report their concerns, and field managers do not feel disinclined to report because of negative consequences to their own career.

    David Gebler is the President of Skout Group, an advisory firm helping global companies manage ethics risks. Send your thoughts and feedback to dgebler@skoutgroup.com.