Imagine you were given a project to oversee the building of an offshore oil rig. One that would end up being the deepest in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil rigs are dangerous and demanding workplaces. If you add on the fact that this oil rig would be producing twice as many barrels at four times the speed of most oil rigs, that compounds the potential hazards on the site. The mere probability of injuries and near misses is much higher. I’m sure that working in this environment would give any health and safety manager heartburn. It gives me heartburn just thinking about it!
Well, luckily you don’t have to be in this imaginary situation. Back in 1997, Shell began building a deepwater platform, Ursa. Rick Fox was tasked with overseeing this project. Fox had been in the industry long enough to know that injuries, and unfortunately death at times, are commonplace in these types of environments. However, this norm was unacceptable to him. He knew something needed to change if they were to build and operate the platform safely.
So, what did Fox do?
Fox launched a safety program to improve workplace safety and to reduce the occurrence of injuries. This program emphasized the importance of working together for a common goal and taking personal responsibility. Over the first year and a half of the construction, Fox had more than 100 oil rig workers go to corporate headquarters and take part in multi-week sessions with the goal of getting them to be more in tune with themselves as well as with the feelings/actions of others. After better understanding themselves and others and then returning to the job, they also began to work more safely.
This initiative didn’t just impact individuals, but it had team and organization-level effects. The program helped to contribute to an 84% decline in Shell’s incident rate. Furthermore, Shell’s level of productivity, efficiency, and reliability exceeded the industry’s previous benchmark.
Can those results be replicated?
Those are some pretty phenomenal effects. Now, the million-dollar question: what resulted in this drastic change and is this something that we can replicate? As part of the safety program, there was a big focus on personal responsibility and working for the crew. Everyone was encouraged to be open and communicate with each other. And, this is what they noticed. Individuals were more inclined to share information on safe practices. They were more likely to admit mistakes so others could learn from them. They needed to be comfortable with vulnerability and ask for help when they knew they couldn’t and shouldn’t lift a very heavy object by themselves. The workers were also more open to learning. Overall, there was a greater focus on communication of safety practices across all levels.
This type of big culture shift is challenging, but can be accomplished. Leadership needs to make an investment in safety culture, which includes conversations and training with managers as well as front-line workers. As was done in the Ursa project, it’s critical for individuals to better understand themselves. We know that everyone has certain tendencies or personality traits that lead us to behave the way we do. These tendencies can either lead us to act in a safe or an at risk manner.
Knowing our safety tendencies, or our personal SafetyDNA®, helps us to recognize our strengths and potential blind spots so we can approach hazardous work in a safer way. If I know that I’m not very observant and am inclined to slips and trips, I can make a more concerted effort to pause when I enter an area, so I can take notice of what’s around and what potential trip hazards there are.
Additionally, having this common language can encourage more communication among workers leading to greater information sharing and teamwork to prevent injuries. Going back to my previous example, I can have my co-workers hold me accountable. If they are asking me about whether I am doing these safety checks, it gets us both in the mindset to think and act safely. These seemingly minor conversations can make changes to the overall culture and safety of the workplace.
Overall, this case example is a good reminder that even in dangerous environments, we can’t and shouldn’t accept that injuries just happen. There are ways that we can make dangerous environments safe, and productive, places to work.