Created with Snap
  • Latest Issue
  • Trending
  • Press
  • Videos
  • Events

Changing the Chemistry of Safety

Published: 10th Jan 2012

When it comes to safety performance, chemical organisations deserve a lot of credit. Despite high-hazard processes and materials, these businesses have largely outpaced other industry organisations in safety performance and injury reduction.

This success can be credited to many things, but among the top are the industry’s closely observed rules, processes, and regulations. Adherence to the lessons of the past has helped the chemical industry get where it is today.

Now, leaders looking to the future of chemical safety are faced with a once un-thought of question: what happens when there are too few new incidents to learn from? More importantly, how do we ensure that employees at every level are adapting to risk as it changes, rather than just ‘ticking the box’?

As we get better at applying the lessons of the past, we’ve discovered that safety performance is more complex than a binary equation of ‘human error’ or ‘mechanical failure’, and that the configuration of risk extends far beyond the shop floor.

Integrating these lessons, however, is an organisational undertaking that will fundamentally task the assumptions and practices of a workforce trained to follow rules. This article discusses why and how chemical and other industries need to develop a culture of commitment; a workplace that supports and encourages engagement with the organisation’s values and creates an environment in which discretionary effort flourishes.

Why a compliance focus won’t advance chemical safety

Organisations that work with hazardous chemicals depend on a high level of compliance with rules (personal safety) and regulations (process safety) to keep employees safe. Whether the rules govern personal protective equipment (PPE) such as goggles or special clothing, or pertain to process safety procedures, e.g. control of explosive properties, accidental release, emergency planning and response, assuring consistent use requires a high level of organisational discipline.

Overly depending on this discipline, however, is a little like focusing on blood pressure as the main measure of a person’s wellness. It is one indicator, and an important one, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

As we come to learn more about how safety works, we see the importance of many other factors to organisational health. Culture, leadership, organisational systems, and other dimensions make up a complex system that interacts with, influences, and ultimately guides safety systems and regulations.

For chemical organisations in particular, there are several barriers that compliance-based safety poses to advancing performance: 1. Injuries live in the past Historical injury data, from which we derive the bulk of regulations, are helpful for understanding the types of outcomes that can occur when working with particular materials, equipment, or processes. Historical data, however, can never anticipate every possible outcome. Ironically, when our primary source of exposure information is injury, the better we become at preventing injuries, hence we have less information to work with. The key to getting in front of this situation is to stop chasing injuries and start focusing on exposure, using the likelihood for injury (leading indicator) rather than actual injuries (lagging indicator) as the measure of performance and the trigger for change. Properly measured, exposure gives leaders a chance to intervene before injury occurs and gets them out of the rear mirror approach to safety.

2. When rules meets culture, culture wins Safety rules and processes don’t exist in a vacuum. Like other business systems, they are interpreted through culture - the unwritten external guide on ‘how I should behave here’. Culture strongly influences how closely people follow explicit rules - or whether they follow them at all. For example, requiring a face shield when grinding may seem straightforward enough, yet in some workplaces it could be considered okay, or even expected, that workers opt out when the boss isn’t around. Compliance-based organisations face an additional hurdle when rules based on prior injuries create blind spots.

These are the rules that either mandate actions that don’t apply to the work, or that demand something that is difficult or impossible for the worker to do. Taking the face shield example, ‘blind spot’ rules might require the use of PPE that is routinely stored 50 metres or more away from the grinding area, or that may even be unavailable. Behaviour, like electricity, follows the path of least resistance. Rules work best when they are aligned with cultural and organisational realities.

3. Being good at following the rules only means you’re good at following the rules In many organisations the achievement of a low injury rate (or another single measure) is assumed to indicate that safety more generally (specifically including management of process safety) is well managed. In fact, there is not necessarily any connection between good management of process safety and good management of personal safety. Furthermore, there is not necessarily any connection between injury rates and actual exposure to injury events. Organisations need to be able to understand real-time what their exposure to risk looks like.

4. Compliance can’t account for all the variables in a live workplace Rules are static and are usually based on our best understanding of likely exposure to risk in our current configuration of equipment and processes. But live workplaces change, events intersect, things happen. Employees trained to ’comply‘ with the rules, without a sense of the bigger picture or the principles behind why we do what we do, are not positioned to respond when anomalies occur. Employees need to understand when exposure is increasing and know how to change their behaviour in response. It’s counterintuitive, but employees do not put themselves at risk unless they receive a positive consequence for doing so. Things like saving time, expending less effort, going home early and meeting production quotas can often put pressure on rules’ compliance. We need to understand these pressures and ensure the consequences of compliance are much more positive than the consequences of non-compliance.

So how do organisations advance safety in the face of such complex, and constantly changing, realities? By developing an inherent organisational adaptability to change that extends to every employee in the organisation. We call this the culture of commitment.

Would your culture pass the 2am test?

Consider the following scenario: It’s 2am. Outside, the temperature is 1° C, the wind is gusting up to 40kph, and there is a steady, ice cold rain. At the same time, an employee is responsible for a task that requires working outside where no one else will be around. The employee knows that following all of the procedures will take about 35 minutes. He also knows that if he bypasses a couple of critical steps, the job will only take 10 to 15 minutes.

If this was your organisation, what decision would the employee make?

At the end of the day, leadership is limited in its ability to provide coverage and even with the best safety programmes, is only as effective as the level of employee buy-in and support for these systems. The defining mark of a commitment culture is what we call the ’2am test‘; that is, what happens at two o’clock in the morning when no one is around, the consultants are long gone, and the managers have all gone home? Even if no one will know, does the employee follow procedures and guidelines because it is the right thing to do? In most instances, the decision the employee makes is the one that the culture supports, and is influenced by how personally connected the employee is to the organisation and leadership. Are they willing to put the interests of the organisation above their personal interests?

A compliance culture, on the other hand, is focused on rules to the extent that safety may be seen as a burden. In some instances, breaking safety procedures and rules may carry with it no significant consequences, or become so routine as to be seen as the norm. It’s common in this culture for employees to feel little connection or loyalty to the organisation. Instead, they often express the belief that they’re little more than a ‘cog in the machine’. The bottom line question in this organisation is ‘what’s in it for me’? Not surprisingly, the compliance culture (sometimes cynically referred to as the ‘non-compliance culture’) frequently fails the 2am test.

While your organisation has probably made some significant improvements in safety performance over the years through rules’ compliance, this alone is not enough to put your organisation on a sustainable path towards zero injuries. We often hear leaders say, “If I could only get the employees to engage in taking ownership for their personal safety.”

What does this statement say about the leader’s own engagement? Leaders need to enable the employees' engagement through their behaviours, building a strong, adaptive culture and creating a feedback rich organisation that recognises and mitigates exposure.

Creating commitment: four key questions

A culture of commitment can be defined as an environment in which employees at all levels will do what is right for themselves, their boss, and the organisation, even when they would personally gain from non-compliance, because they are brought in and connected to the organisation and leader’s vision.

Employees feel allied with each other and with the organisation. Safety violations have consequences and there is no doubt that the organisation and an employee’s peers value safety. The bottom line question in this organisation is ‘what would my boss want me to do’? What does the organisation really value?

This is the kind of culture that routinely passes the 2am test. It takes time to build a culture of commitment, but leaders can start by posing four simple questions:

1. What is our real goal? In other words, what are we asking people to be committed to? The real goal is not whether you want to be ‘zero harm’ or ‘injury free’, or whether to reduce injuries by 25% in one year or two. These distinctions are important and a part of every safety performance plan. Yet they sidestep the core element of commitment: the big picture view of what safety means to us; that is, how we think about safety, how we see its role in the organisation, and what defines success - these things shape everything we do and say and ultimately the commitment we’re asking people to make. As a start, consider how you define success. Do you judge your safety performance based on the absence of failure? Or do you use a balanced mix of valid leading and lagging indicators when assessing safety performance?

2. Do we understand the state of our culture as it is now? What does our culture encourage? Culture is the most predictive element of safety success. Organisations that have strong adaptive cultures (basically, an openness to change), also tend to have low injury rates. An extensive body of research identifies measurable cultural characteristics that in addition to predicting safety outcomes (such as level of safe behaviour, injury rates and event reporting), have also been shown to predict variables indirectly related to safety, such as turnover, citizenship behaviour, trust in the organisation, and trust of employees, innovation and creativity. How employees perceive these dimensions has been shown to correlate to injury rate.

Under the demands of day to day activity, safety technical and management systems will be used rigorously only if people within the organisation understand the overall vision for safety and the values that support that vision. In an organisation where general functioning is poor, we tend to see them struggling with compliance, and organisational commitment is non-existent. These organisations are also more likely to see compromises and shortcuts in the implementation of safety systems.

3. How good is our safety leadership? Do we promote a strong adaptive culture or do we inadvertently reinforce (or create) poor organisational functioning? Leaders are ultimately responsible for the culture of the organisation, whether they’ve been there for 20 years or have just arrived. Line employees cannot change the culture of the organisation - that power is in the hands of the leaders. There is a core set of safety best practices as well as the leaders’ transformational style that have a predictive relationship to the culture of an organisation.

It’s easy for us as leaders to take the victim approach to the culture. Are we wallowing in the problems or are we understanding that we are the change agents for improving organisational functioning? Once we understand the strengths and gaps in our safety leadership behaviours, we can then start focusing on what we are doing well and reinforce these behaviours, as well as understand where we can improve. It’s easy to believe others judge our intentions based on our words, but it’s our behaviours that tell others about our true priorities.

4. Have we earned the right to engage the hourly workforce? Commitment is a function of social exchange. Put simply, people will treat the organisation the way the organisation treats them. As leaders, we need to develop relationships with employees as real people not economic units. We need to show that we really care.

Earning the right to engage employees is critical to any new endeavour. You see the lack of this step often in poorly-launched behaviour-based safety initiatives where improvement is not a partnership but a steely contest of ‘us versus them’. In these scenarios you may see data withheld, observations used as the only metric, and little feedback given to observed employees. Not surprisingly, the quality of these efforts is often poor and if they are sustained at all it is through sheer will.

On the other hand, implementations in which leaders work on their own credibility, give employees due recognition and feedback, and generally set their own shoulder to the wheel alongside other employees tend to have workforces who are equally committed to finding exposures and in turn engaging their peers in improving safety.

One of the biggest barriers we have seen to building commitment, particularly in previously compliance-focused organisations, is the overuse of discipline.

Usually this is a result of leaders who are frustrated at what they perceive as an employee losing focus, or blatantly violating a rule. Discipline has a role in safety but when not applied consistently and fairly it will undermine leadership credibility, the integrity of the rules, and the culture of the organisation.

If our response to all injuries is to assign blame, employees will quickly disengage from the organisation since they perceive it as unjust. This situation also stems from an organisation’s focus on lagging indicators as their sole measure of safety performance.

What’s next?

Today’s chemical organisation is again at the forefront of safety advancement. Only now instead of showing other industries how to excel at compliance, they have the opportunity to help pioneer a multi-dimensional approach to safety performance.

It is important to remember that achieving a culture of commitment doesn’t happen overnight. It takes persistent and vigilant attention to safety processes, culture, and leadership. While creating a committed workforce may seem like a monumental undertaking, it really comes down to changing just one behaviour at a time, starting with senior leadership.


Teg Matthews is the Head of Business Development, EMEA with BST, a global safety consulting firm.

Teg works with senior leaders and leadership teams to design and implement safety change initiatives throughout the Gulf, Middle East, and the UK. Teg is based in United Arab Emirates and can be reached at

Dennis Jackson works with senior executives, leadership teams, and other key client leaders to help them create a vision for their organisation's future in safety. Dennis is based in the US.

BST’s clients represent more than 60 countries, 30 languages, and many of the leading organisations in oil and gas, manufacturing, chemical, mining, metals, paper, transportation, consumer products, utilities, healthcare, and other critical industries. More information about BST is available at

Published: 10th Jan 2012 in Health and Safety Middle East

Share this article with your friends