In my work with companies all over the world, I see a growing trend to delegate safety to the supervisor and even the operator level of organisations. Supervisors and operators prepare and issue permits to work and they host contractors during the execution of their work; operational teams complete risk assessments and operators write safe working procedures. In the context of shifting the responsibility for safety to the line organisation and in involving the people on the floor in safety management, this is a positive trend. However, as risk assessments, permits and safe working procedures are critical elements in any safety management system and in most efforts to build a safety culture, document quality is critical. Not only for the journey to fewer and ultimately zero accidents, but also in the legal context of safety management. And yet, this quality aspect especially appears to be a challenge for some organisations.
During the safety walks I do in all types of industries and in all regions, I see a number of “common” observations (non-limitative list):
• Due to time constraints, permits are written in the office, not at the place where the work will be executed
• A number of risks associated to a task are not identified or not indicated in the permit, or proper risk mitigation measures are not provided to the executing team
• Permits are not explained, just handed over. As a result, the content of the permit is sometimes not known, not understood and/or not applied by the executing team
• Permits are not properly closed. The workplace is not visited when closing the permit, and the task is not properly closed out (safety protection of the installation is not replaced, not cleaned, unclear installation “status”, etc.)
• Safe working procedures are rather general, not task specific. This implies that the specificities of the task are not dealt with, and the guidance provided by the safe operating procedure is rather general. The same applies for risk assessments. They exist, though they are often not task specific and therefore less effective.
• Organisational risks, installation risks and area risks are not integrated into the risk assessments, which means that important risks (traffic, installation specific risks) are not sufficiently covered
The abovementioned observations apply, to a greater or lesser degree, to many companies.
It is important for senior management to be aware of the challenges that their organisation faces when delegating safety downwards in the organisation. Senior management should monitor the situation on the ground and, whenever required, define an action plan or strategy to ensure that the quality and completeness of the safety documentation meets the highest standards. Our safety documentation is meant to support and guide the people executing a task in what to do and how to do it, to ensure that they are properly informed about the task and its risks. Providing high-quality information and instructions is a critical element in the safety culture of an organisation.
A number of elements have to be in place to effectively delegate safety downwards into an organisation:
• All safety processes, procedures and the related performance requirements have to be documented clearly (How do we make a risk assessment? What is the process? The template? How do we calculate risk?)
• Training and coaching are critical, and often lack both depth and detail. The training provided is sometimes limited to an extended introduction to a subject, not an in-depth and practical training. As an example, when you expect people to perform a root cause analysis, it is not enough to tell people to ask 5 times why and to give them some very general examples during a four-hour session. We have to guide our trainees through the incident investigation process, discuss a number of real-life cases with them, and do so during a series of training and/or coaching sessions. This is the only way to create a competence base for performing a proper root cause analysis
• Both the operational leadership and the safety professional need to spend sufficient time on the shop floor, to check the activity on the ground, to discuss issues and concerns, and to support their people whenever required. Based on the input received from the shop floor, process improvements have to be suggested and implemented whenever required
• Audits are critical, and any organisation should measure the quality of its risk assessments, permits and safe working procedures, as well as other safety-related documentation. The objectives of the audits are:
o Optimize the process in place on a continuous basis
o Optimize the implementation process (information provided, training, time allocated to the task, competence of the people allocated to the task, etc.)
o Check compliance with the process: do people respect the process and the process requirements? Why not?
o Measure the process outcome, as a basis for managing the quality of the process output
Safety is in the heart, and safety is all about behaviour. But safety is sometimes complicated and requires insights into multiple factors, so operational teams often depend on information and insights provided to them. The most effective way of providing this information and the insights required is through safe working procedures and/or permits. Ensuring this process is in place and is effective is a (plant) management responsibility.
A senior manager who applies the safety in the heart principles, creates a context in which operational people are, at task-level, informed about all the risks of a task and how to mitigate all these risks. This information is provided in a face-to-face conversation at the workplace, with the possibility for all involved to ask questions, raise concerns or to provide additional information. When this process is in place, it creates trust, pride and a feeling of being taken seriously at operator level, and these sentiments are very strong motivators for the operator to respect instructions, to do a safety review prior to the start of the work and ultimately, to work safely.
In a similar logic, plant management needs to have the means to create a context in which this approach can be implemented and applied. Following this logic, executive management must make sure that a solid safety management framework is established at corporate level, and that sufficient competent managers are available to implement this safety management framework. The success of this approach hinges on plant management being able to spend time in the field, with their operational teams.
The conclusion is, and will always be, that effective safety management starts at the top. Delegating safety down in the organisation is positive and recommended, but only if the corporate and the plant-level context is right. And creating this context is a top management responsibility which can never be delegated.