This website uses non-intrusive cookies to improve your user experience. You can visit our cookie privacy page for more information.

APPEA Conference – 3 September 2014

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

It’s all about leadership

Good afternoon. I am delighted to have this opportunity to kick off this final session of the conference and to offer some of my own thoughts ahead of the panel discussion on Leadership on the front line.

Over the last 3 days you have heard from many eminent speakers and it is clear from the programme that you have explored many different aspects of the health, safety and environment agenda. My guess is that a number of you are sitting there right now with notebooks or tablets full of good ideas for things you need to do or get others to do when you get back to your own workplaces. For you the priority may be to do much more on occupational health, or it may be about paying more attention to communication of process safety matters, or more fully integrating contractors and your own employees to work together on safety. There are likely to be environmental challenges to address as well as health and safety ones. Are the actions you need to take to address all of these consistent and compatible or do they conflict? The chances are, that at the very least they will compete for limited resources in the organisation – be they people to do the work or capital to invest in projects.

Creating the right culture

Most of us have been there before. We go away to a conference or on a course for a few days and then we return to the office with lots of good ideas and initiatives that we want to get going on. But when we get back to work several things are likely to happen:

I hope that this doesn’t sound cynical. I am not trying to dampen your spirits, far from it. But before you leave this conference today I would ask all of you think long and hard about your role and what you are going to do differently to lead your organisation to achieve a truly sustainable health, safety and environmental culture.

The job tomorrow morning is not to hand out a series of tasks to be done based on what you’ve learned but to go back and assess the current culture of your workplace. Ask yourself why the culture is as it is. Before applying some of the human factors insights you may have learned here to your workforce, take some time to reflect on your own human factors – how does your behaviour influence the way your organisation responds on health and safety? I am asking you to think about whether or not your leadership style and your behaviours are creating the right culture in your organisation – or not.

Asking the right questions

I have no doubt that all of you have safety as a priority – the subject you discuss first at every meeting. But what expectations are you setting? Is there a sense of “no news is good news”? There were no lost time accidents or incidents yesterday, nobody got hurt – good we can move on. If there was an incident where is the focus of attention – what went wrong? Who made a mistake? What needs fixing to stop it happening again? But will the investigation really get to the root cause of the incident? Are you making it absolutely clear to people that you want to understand the root cause and the broadest possible lessons to be learned? Are you willing and ready to share those lessons with your colleagues and your peers – within the company - within APPEA - so that they can all learn from your mistakes?

Learning from others

How good is your organisation at learning from others? What mechanisms do you have in place to find out about incidents you can learn from? When an incident happens to someone else – and I don’t mean just in your particular sector – how hard do you seek to learn what went wrong? All too often, the desire to understand what happened in someone else’s facility is driven by wanting to convince yourself that what happened to them can’t happen in your organisation.

But if your focus is on the detail of  what went wrong “there” – for example in the case of Buncefield in the UK in 2005,  the failure of a level gauge-  it is quite possible that you will miss the broader lessons to be learned about the systemic and cultural failures which led to an organisation that had learned to live with poor communication, persistent alarms and a workforce operating under stress and pressure. It is easy to check whether you have a similar problem with level gauges, much more challenging to assess whether the culture of your organisation exhibits any of the same characteristics which might lead to a different type of failure in your case.


Most leadership courses teach us about the need to exhibit confidence. If we want people to follow our leadership then we must set clear expectations, we should have a vision for the future and we should inspire others. But in all of the businesses that you work in – extracting and processing natural resources, on and offshore – you must always be mindful of the hazards and risks and you must never become complacent or assume that “it won’t happen to you” – because it could. That confidence you exhibit as a leader needs to be coupled with an underlying sense of chronic unease about what could go wrong. Your confident leadership style will appear hollow to your employees, if they know that there are many hidden problems out there which are not getting fixed and which management either never ask about or don’t seem to want to hear about. Leadership in health and safety in your sector(s) in not about having all of the answers – it is about knowing the right questions to ask and knowing how to respond when concerns are raised.

Your role is to seek assurance that the right safety priorities are being addressed and properly monitored, not to create an expectation that you want to be reassured “all is well” – even when it isn’t.

Performance measures are important – because the organisation will act on what it is asked to report – but they must be the right measures.  Absence of lost time injuries is not an effective measure that process safety/asset integrity is being properly managed

You don’t need to be an expert in health and safety to ask the right questions. You can - and should - ask your staff to tell you what are the most safety critical issues and ask them what systems are or should be in place to ensure the integrity. In high hazard industries like yours it is essential that you have and are monitoring leading indicators of performance – not waiting for the lagging indicators that tell you things have already failed. Indicators of process safety don’t need to be complicated – simple measures which are easily understood and mean something to everyone will have much greater impact.

Leadership in health, safety and environment is not something that you do “in addition” to exercising corporate governance, financial management, market intelligence and workforce leadership – it is absolutely fundamental and integral to leading the business – it must be a core value – not a priority. Frontline leadership in health safety and environment is about showing that you care and that you are concerned – and showing that to all of your stakeholders – your workforce, your shareholders, your customers and suppliers, your competitors, local communities and the broader public.

Listen and build trust

Stakeholders – shareholders, and local communities can often appear to be  increasingly intolerant and mistrusting of major hazard industries – but we have to ask ourselves what part performance plays in this. They are much less likely to be convinced by “couldn’t happen here” arguments. We need to find ways to give them assurance that we understand their concerns and that we are doing all we can to manage the hazards. We need to demonstrate that we are very much aware of – and respect - their concerns by listening to what they say. 

An effective regulatory regime is an essential part of providing that external assurance – of building public confidence. To be effective the regulator must be independent – and be seen to be independent. The regulator must adapt as technologies change and develop but the principles to be applied remain constant.. An effective regime must ensure that the dutyholder understands all of the risks in their operation, knows how to manage those risks and how to mitigate their consequences in the event of things going wrong. The regulator sets standards and outcomes to be achieved and assesses the organisation’s ability to manage the process safely.

Safety case approach

For more than 20 years now, since Piper Alpha in the North Sea, the UK has operated a safety case approach to major hazards industries. It has proven itself to be very effective – it does not offer guarantees – but it does provide a high level of assurance. It is a regime which is very clear about roles and responsibilities of both the regulated and the regulator. The regulator assesses the capability of the organisation and tests the measures in place before granting permission to operate. Permission can be withdrawn at any time in the event that the system is found to be wanting. But the responsibility for identifying and managing the risks rest very clearly with the dutyholders – with you – the leaders at every level in the organisation.  The safety case is your document – not the regulator’s. It should be used and disseminated throughout the whole organisation – everyone should know what part they play in maintaining the integrity of the system. It should be your “contract” not only with the regulator but with all of your workforce and your stakeholders – your means of explaining what your organisation must do, what the risks are and the roles that everyone must play in collectively managing those risks. For the safety case to be used in this way it must be written with this purpose in mind – it must be easy to understand and to communicate – not full of technical jargon and mathematical formulae.


We sometimes make assumptions about what others want to hear. Confidence is built by sharing what we know – and admitting what we don’t know or are unable to offer guarantees on. In my own personal experience in industry, when major hazards regulation placed a requirement on onshore dutyholders to communicate with neighbours about what could happen inside the fence and that this could have possible offsite consequences, residents accepted the information calmly and reasonably. They appreciated knowing that the organisation was behaving responsibly and was giving them advice ahead of time about what to do in the event of an emergency. If you work offshore you may think this is irrelevant, but in today’s highly connected world we all have “neighbours” – we all operate in the public eye all of the time.

Leadership is about being on the frontline, but it most certainly is not about having all of the answers. Leadership takes place at every level in the organisation. Leaders are determined by what they do and say and they ask insightful questions. The answers lie somewhere in the workforce – at every level. Leaders need to ask the right questions and above all – create the right culture.

Updated 2014-11-23