The impact of human factors when creating a positive safety culture

“Cultivating and nurturing a positive safety culture takes time and effort” says Jamie Elliott, human factors specialist, HFL Risk Services 
Safety culture is essentially an organisation’s collective attitudes, values and behaviours towards safety. Put simply it is “how we do things around here” and in particular “how we do things around here when nobody’s looking.”
As companies working within the high hazard industries, oil and fuel operators’ safety policies are governed primarily by the COMAH (control of major accident hazards) regulations. Under these, operators are required to ensure that major accident risk potential remains as low as reasonably practicable. However, just because a company complies with industry safety regulations, it does not necessarily follow that it has a positive safety culture.
A staged progression – individuals, frontline workers, managers, directors and the board
Safety culture is often described as progressing through a series of stages. Early stages of safety culture maturity involve a focus on technical and procedural solutions to safety problems. When an incident occurs, the aim is often to find out who was involved.
As the organisation matures, managers increasingly realise that a wide range of factors cause accidents and that the root causes often originate from management decisions. This is where knowledge of human factors plays a key role. By understanding the individual, job and organisational factors that influence frontline workers’ performance, we can analyse individual human failures and determine what can be done to prevent them recurring. This moves the focus away from the individual who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, to look at what managers can do.
At higher levels of safety culture maturity, both frontline workers and managers co-operate proactively to prevent accidents and their root causes. So managers and frontline staff can drive safety culture from the bottom up by improving understanding of human and organisational factors throughout the organisation.
However, there is growing recognition that safety culture needs to be driven from the boardroom. Moreover employers in high hazard industries are increasingly being called upon to demonstrate organisational competence in process safety management. The UK Health & Safety Executive states that ‘Directors and boards need to examine their own behaviours, both individually and collectively’. Business leaders need to get out and talk to staff at all levels about process safety.
Setting Process Safety Performance Indicators (PSPIs) can be a structured way to do this. To be able to have these conversations, leaders need to have sufficient understanding of process safety including the root causes of accidents. If this is lacking then a first step is often to improve process safety competence at senior levels, not just in operations but also business support functions such as maintenance, HR, finance and quality at site and group level, as well as amongst non-executive directors.
Taking the time and effort to cultivate and nurture a positive safety culture will pay dividends not only in terms of overall site safety, but also in profitability since the two are very closely linked.
HFL Risk Services, which took part in last month’s Tank Storage Association exhibition and conference, offers nationally recognised qualifications for continuous improvement in process safety for senior managers and senior executives.