Editor's Notebook: A Lesson in What Has to Happen

The BP refinery explosion offers a compelling reminder that the primary focus of safety is prevention.

We are using much of this issue to celebrate America's Safest Companies, but what often catches our attention in occupational safety are the tragic events resulting in injury or death. For virtually every one of them, we know that the event did not have to happen.

At the recent World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, Ellen Kullman of DuPont talked about the key principles in the field. "First and foremost is prevention," she said. "We live in an increasingly dangerous world where we cannot afford to be reactive. Instead, we must take proactive actions that prevent injuries and incidents."

Now, that may seem rather basic to many of you, but it is in reality the hardest lesson that even sophisticated companies must learn. Take BP Products North America, which has no dearth of expertise or money and yet received the highest fine in OSHA history last month. The $21.4 million penalty resulted from the March 23 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 at BP's refinery in Texas City, Texas.

Reading through the violations, it is clear that much of the problem was a failure to establish a proactive safety culture. A number of violations were for lapses in process safety management precisely the standard OSHA promulgated to get companies to assess and improve their processes before disaster strikes.

In announcing the settlement agreement, Solicitor of Labor Howard Radzely said it sent "a strong message to all employers about the need to protect workers and to make health and safety a core value."

Kullman concurred in her speech. "Crucial to prevention is creating a safety culture in every organization," she said. And then she made perhaps her most essential point: "A safety culture is driven by felt leadership leadership that feels, believes and acts upon the value of respect for human life."

Finally, Kullman pointed out that establishing this safety culture requires management to see that "safety is a business value." Out of that understanding comes the management attention, staff expertise, employee training and other resources applied daily to maintain and improve safety processes. For in the end, those seemingly mundane activities have to happen. Deadly incidents such as the BP explosion don't.

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