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Step change in safety speech/presentation

Workforce Engagement ‘tool kit’ Launch

September 5th Aberdeen Exhibition Conference Centre

As part of the Workforce Engagement Team I’ve been asked to talk about the importance of workforce engagement, and as part of that I want to reflect briefly on a real ‘eye opener’ of an experience for me. I was in Houston a while ago at the invitation of the US Chemical Safety Board. They were staging a public hearing as part of their ongoing investigations into the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and they asked if I would participate in the event, the subject of which was ‘Safety Performance Indicators’. I was the trade union representative from the UK and there was a delegate from a Norwegian union, along with representatives of the regulators in both countries, HSE and PSA, as well as industry reps from Oil & Gas UK and their Norwegian equivalent OLF.

The purpose of the hearing, as the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) put it was to "create momentum among experts and decision makers regarding the development and use of truly effective indicators for major accident prevention". Over 200 people attended the event on both days with significant numbers from industry organisations like the American Petroleum Institute.

All of the European delegates made statements to the CSB panel - the unions, regulators and industry representatives - which I can tell you didn’t really differ that much. We were then asked questions by the CSB panel, by those watching on line via email and by the audience in the room.

Along with the European input, the US industry people also made statements on the subject of how things worked on their ‘patch’.

Now you may be wondering what my trip to Houston has to do with the launch of the Workforce Engagement Tool kit, which by the way I tried to promote while I was in Houston. Well the reason for mentioning Houston is because the attitudes I encountered from some stakeholders in Houston were similar in many ways to those I encountered here in the UK sector way back when I started out in 1980 and then as an offshore safety rep in 1990.

However, that was then and this is now, and here I am standing on a stage with senior managers from our industry promoting an initiative, which we ALL want to see working. I cannot emphasise that aspect of things enough here. The Workforce Engagement Group is a sub-group of the Step Change Leadership Team. The Step Change Leadership Team, until recently, was made up of industry leaders, Chief Execs, Managing Directors and the like. So what we have here is a tool developed by industry leaders and managers, which they genuinely hope will assist them to do their job, and do it better!

For me this is a vitally important aspect for workers to recognise. We have witnessed a cultural change in some management styles here in the UK and to their credit, many managers now acknowledge the importance of involving and engaging workers in the safety agenda. It’s taken a wee bit of time to get here, and it has to be said that for a few in the UK there’s still some way to go. But it is the fact there is still room for improvement in the way safety is managed which adds weight to the importance of this tool kit. Where it’s not already happening, workers will be able to influence how safety is being managed if they use this system in the way that it’s been designed.

I’m going to say that again just to be absolutely clear. If workers and by that I mean all workers, including chargehands, foremen, supervisors etc; if you use the tools provided and specifically the survey tool, you will be able to influence the management of safety operations at your workplace and improve your involvement and engagement. There’s one key element to making that happen though, it’s ‘honesty’. If as workers your inputs are made in such a way that you are giving the answers you think management want to hear, then nothing will change. It is crucial that you are honest and input a true reflection of how operations are being managed at your site.

It is therefore vitally important that the tool kit is promoted at your sites in a way that gets this message over – this is not just another questionnaire! Each of you here today has to take that message back to your respective work sites and seek to get genuine buy-in from the workforce if this is to have the impact we all hope for, and I’ll try to explain what that is.

I mentioned my trip to Houston and the subject matter there which was "Safety Performance Indicators”. In my statement to the hearing I reflected on initiatives generated by the HSE which have subsequently become industry driven performance indicators, things like hydrocarbon releases, asset integrity and verification processes. These are all indicators which are measureable, as we can count the number of gas leaks we have and how many asset integrity events occur and so on. However, to date we’ve never really been able to measure the ‘safety culture’ at a work site and if senior managers don’t know what workers think about the management of safety, they are missing a critical piece of the ‘safety management jigsaw’. Remember the evidence of the Occidental Chief Executive at the Cullen Inquiry after the Piper Alpha blew apart in 1988. He said,  "I wasn’t aware of any problems, nobody told me we had problems”.

Fast forward then to April 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon blew apart taking 11 lives. On the day, there were VIPs on board to hand out awards for the rig’s safety performance, while workers on the drill floor were fighting to control a well on the brink of blowout. Since then survivors from the rig have reported how safety systems were not working, how alarms were inhibited for lengthy periods. This is important information, but if it’s coming from the witness box - it’s too late!

With regards to Piper and Deepwater my point is this; senior managers either didn’t know what was going on, or chose to ignore it, or else they opted to rely on other indicators such as Lost Time Injuries and STOP Cards to assure themselves that safety was being managed appropriately. We should all know by now that’s not enough. Remember the Deepwater Horizon was one of the most technically advanced drilling rigs on the planet and had supposedly gone several years without an incident or lost time injury. What this tells us is:

This tool kit has the potential to help close the ‘circle’ of managing safety by providing a key performance indicator on how engaged a workforce is with day to day safety operations. If a workforce for any reason is unable or unwilling to challenge, how can a senior manager be confident that everything which could and should be done, is in fact being done? The obvious answer is they can’t. This in turn means that all of the other targets set against other performance indicators may not be met. This tool kit can alert senior managers to a problem and allow them to address it, while on the flip side, as I keep emphasising, it lets the workforce make senior managers aware of a problem when otherwise they might be reluctant to. 

So in summary; we work in a goal setting safety regime where the primary objective is ‘continuous improvement’. All parties agree and acknowledge our industry has reached a plateau with regards to safety performance and we have been on that plateau for a few years. So for managers, you need to utilise all of your assets if you are to improve still further, but more than that you need to acknowledge the only people capable of taking you below the current plateau is the workforce. For workers, you need to become involved in day to day decisions around the safety of operations and engage with management. Of course all of this may already be happening at your worksites, as there are numerous examples of good practice out there, but where it’s not happening, this tool kit can deliver.

We have seen and continue to see a change in management culture. We’ve come from the dark days of claims about ‘Trojan horses’ and trade union troublemakers to realising that good workforce engagement is fundamental to improving safety performance and in fact business performance. We now want the workforce to embrace this cultural change and match it. This is not just another questionnaire – it is a tool developed by managers who genuinely want to understand areas of weakness and strength to help them develop plans for further improvement in safety performance. I’m here to emphasise the importance of workforce engagement and to encourage workers to do just that – engage!

Jake Molloy

RMT Regional Organiser. 

Updated 2013-01-18