Safety 2011: Safety Is a CEO Issue

June 13, 2011
While using the fallout from the BP oil spill disaster as an example, Thomas Krause, Ph.D., told safety professionals at the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Safety 2011 conference that they are responsible for communicating safety to senior leadership – leadership that, in some cases, exhibits “a profound failure” of understanding safety within their organizations.

In the wake of high-profile workplace catastrophes, such as the BP oil spill or the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, Krause said that it becomes clear that “safety really is a CEO issue.” Ask the public who is responsible for safety after one of these disasters, and they invariably point to the company’s CEO, he said.

During the a crowded session in Chicago, Krause shared several quotes made by CEOs following catastrophic accidents in their companies, including former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s line “Accidents sometimes happen” and then-BP CEO Tony Hayward’s infamous “Sometimes you step off a curb and get hit by a bus.” These quotes, Krause said, represent “a profound failure to understand what safety’s all about.”

Krause stressed that he used the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill not to point fingers, but rather as an example to consider how we can better investigate these incidents in order to prevent them in the future. Safety, he stressed, requires the CEO’s direct leadership and involvement. Safety cannot be delegated and then put aside. It must be “a burning issue within a CEO.”

And the key to achieving that, Krause continued, is for safety professionals to help senior leaders be more effective safety leaders. Unfortunately, he added, safety professionals don’t always effectively and convincingly communicate safety to senior executives.

“Serious safety people already know [why safety is important],” Krause said. “Now, why don’t your CEOs get that? Why is that a rarity when a CEO gets it? I don’t think we can blame them, I think we have to look at ourselves.”

Serious/Fatal Injuries Study

Krause also shared with attendees a study that revealed that while a company’s recordable injuries might be in decline, serious and fatal injuries may remain at the same level or even increase. Not all injuries have the potential to be serious or fatal, and reducing the number of recordable injuries does not correspond to an equivalent reduction serious/fatal injuries.

“A reliance on recordable injuries as the primary measure creates a blind spot,” Krause explained. “As a result, leaders have a false confidence until a serious or fatal injury surprises them.”

The way to prevent these serious/fatal incidents, Krause said, is to find the precursors to the injury and fix them before an injury event can occur. He also offered the following suggestions for how safety professionals can help bolster safety with an organization:

  1. Educate leadership about safety, starting at the very top of the company and moving down through the rest of the organization.
  2. Measure serious/fatal injuries and high potentials as one category.
  3. Develop processes to identify and mitigate precursors.
  4. Integrate existing audit and observation practices.

“This is an opportunity,” Krause told conference attendees. “This is something we should all take very seriously.”

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