Defensive about safety?

June 1, 2007
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Results of a recent survey published in the March 2007 issue of Professional Safety magazine suggest many top company managers might be “unrealistically optimistic” about how well their safety program functions and the risks the company faces.

In the telephone survey, 404 senior executives (47.5 percent were chief financial officers) were asked a series of questions assessing their company’s safety performance, programs and EHS personnel.

Almost two-thirds (65.9 percent) believed their company’s safety performance was better than other companies in their industry. Only 5.8 percent said their company’s safety performance was not as good as others.

Many respondents mentioned statistics — workers’ comp rates and costs, OSHA injury numbers — were the basis for their perceptions.

But as Dr. Scott Geller, Dr. Dan Petersen and other safety experts have pointed out, “outcome numbers” can be misleading, involve pure chance, and do not capture information about the effectiveness of various safety activities you have in place.

As the researchers of the study published in Professional Safety write: “One cannot definitively conclude whether the participants’ perceptions of safety performance, programs and personnel reflect the facts. It is important that (EHS) professionals know that these individuals views might be flawed.”

What about senior execs at your workplace? Are their perceptions about levels of safety, risk and how you do your job on the mark?

BP findings
Along these lines, consider the findings released in January of the investigation led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III into the March 2005 explosion at BP’s giant Texas City, Texas, refinery. Bottom line: The inquiry found a lack of attention to safety on the part of managers helped create a dangerous setting that led to the explosion and the deaths of 15 workers.

According to the 374-page report:

  • Inspections on volatile process units often were long overdue.
  • Near-catastrophes went uninvestigated.
  • Known equipment problems such as thinning pipes and vessels were not repaired for up to ten years.
Baker’s investigative team found no evidence that BP execs intentionally underfunded safety improvements at the refinery. But BP “did not always ensure that adequate resources were effectively allocated to support or sustain a high level of process safety performance,” the report stated.

After the report was released, BP’s chief executive at the time, John Browne, told reporters: “BP gets it. And I get it, too.” Browne, who recently resigned his post over an unrelated personal scandal, denied that production or profits had been put before personal safety — a charge leveled by employees at the refinery — and vowed that BP would implement all of the Baker panel’s ten recommendations. An independent monitor will report back to the BP board on the status of the implementations.

Defense mechanisms
In his 1985 book, “Vital Lies, Simple Truths — The Psychology of Self-Deception,” Daniel Goleman describes “a potentially endless assortment of specific tactics for creating the bias of perception that leads to a blind spot.”

BP is far from the only company to evidence a blind spot when it comes to workplace safety. How many of the 14,000 firms recently receiving letters from OSHA about their high injury rates, and how many of those 400+ mostly optimistic execs surveyed, might be looking at safety issues with blinders on?

Safety issues and problems are susceptible to these defense mechanisms described by Goleman:

Repression — Safety information, especially negative and potentially costly findings and reports, are put out of mind, blocked from awareness, forgotten in an organization’s long-term memory bank.

Denial — Disturbing safety information passes into an organization’s collective memory without first passing into awareness. It is never acknowledged.

Isolation — Senior executives, for example, might focus attention on the fact that the company has a good OSHA injury/illness rate, and blank out results of an employee perception survey indicating widespread concern over safety risks.

Rationalization — “But look at our OSHA numbers,” says an exec, using them as a cover story to hide negative safety indicators.

Selective inattention — “I don’t see what I don’t like,” is how Goleman describes this defense. So known, costly-to-repair equipment problems go unattended for years. Near-catastrophes go uninvestigated. Audit findings calling for safety investments collect dust on a shelf.

Automatism — “Entire sequences of… behavior go on without our having to notice either that they happened or the (troubles)… they might indicate,” writes Goleman. An organization might put its attention to safety on “auto pilot” and neglect investigative findings or employee perceptions in favor of addressing pressing production and profit issues.

Here’s something for EHS pros to consider: To paraphrase Goleman, an organization’s defenses against disturbing safety information operate beneath the surface of awareness. People are not consciously aware they are using defenses or filtering information.

Many years ago, safety expert Gene Earnest put it this way: Sometimes it is left to the safety pro to create the cognitive dissonance within an organization to make people see things they’d rather not.

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