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Achieve Effective Process Safety Management

Sept. 24, 2013
"Felt leadership" plays a crucial role in ensuring success

After fatal industrial incidents in Seveso, Italy; Bhopal, India; and Texas City, Texas, chemical makers resolved to improve process safety management (PSM) to prevent similar events from happening. And yet this year, we witnessed an explosion and fire at a fertilizer storage facility in Texas, even though the company had safety regulations in place. That disaster underscores that PSM systems only function effectively if they're adequate and implemented rigorously. Ensuring this happens isn't just the job of the SHE (safety, health and environment) manager but also depends on the company leadership. These executives' commitment to safety should be obvious to every employee — and it's what makes the difference between a firm that pays lip service to process safety and one that achieves process safety excellence.

The Baker Panel report into the disaster at BP's Texas City refinery highlights this point (see: "Panel Blasts BP's Safety Practices"). Five of the panel's ten recommendations directly address leadership requirements. One of the panel members, Paul V. Tebo, former DuPont vice president of SHE, went so far as to state that the fundamental, underlying issue at BP Texas City was "leadership, leadership, leadership."

Chemical makers rely on PSM to reduce risks with the goal of eliminating any significant process incidents. Managing these risks is one of the key responsibilities and challenges every company in the chemical industry must accept. Effective PSM ultimately is the responsibility of senior executives because that's where the buck stops. Success in PSM directly relates to the quality of decision-making by and within the organization. Leadership is all about influencing and improving the quality of this decision-making. The approach leaders follow to ensure highest-quality decision-making by the organization in managing existing operational risks is what we at DuPont call "felt leadership." It's a necessary ingredient in successful PSM implementation and execution.

The term frequently is mentioned at PSM conferences and in informal conversations as a quality that management must demonstrate if PSM implementation is to succeed. It's been used to describe a style of leadership that's also necessary in complex chemical processes and operations. Felt leadership can be sensed or experienced rather than just heard or seen. It suggests leadership with passion, authenticity and even humility.

Interestingly, DuPont coined the term more than 20 years ago. Then, its context was very different. In fact, at the time felt leadership wasn't used directly for safety at all.

Back in 1990, a group of plant managers (including me) had been formed into a body called the "Plant Managers Board." We had a specific task: to identify best practices related to "high performing work systems," or HPWS for short. At the time, HPWS were described as "high involvement systems of accomplishing work in which all employees have developed the capability to connect with and drive the quality of business results to be world class."

The board consisted of approximately ten plant managers from all regions of the world. Some didn't have much experience and others were seasoned veterans. Some managed very large plants while others ran small ones. Some were engineers and others had diverse educational backgrounds. We came together face-to-face at least quarterly for about two years. And we almost always visited different operating sites to observe and analyze. Sometimes the facilities were DuPont's. At other times, we visited external facilities such as the Honda car assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio.

After a visit to a DuPont facility in rural Illinois in 1991, our group met in a conference room and attempted to synthesize our collective observations into something usable and concise — something we could package and leverage across DuPont operations. We filled sheet after sheet of paper until we literally covered the four walls of the room. We had seen and observed so much that there were almost too much data.

Then, one of our members, who later rose to become senior vice president of operations at DuPont, took the floor and articulated in simple terms what came to be known as the "six attributes of HPWS." The first was "vision, mission and strategic intent known by all." The second was "committed and dedicated leadership 'felt' within the organization," or simply "felt leadership."

To clarify the meaning of felt leadership, we set out to define what it should include. Our board wanted leaders who could create vision and energy, stretch goals and invite positive pushback. We wanted leaders who were results- and output-oriented and could make every employee in the organization feel a sense of purpose.

We then went on to develop a self-assessment tool that senior managers could use to help ensure they would act in a way that would make them visible and their leadership felt by the entire organization. We asked them to reflect on the following questions:

  • Do we, as leaders, have a clear vision for change based on the needs of all stakeholders?
  • Are we visible, knowledgeable and open with people?
  • Do we value upgrades from anywhere?
  • Do we continually set objectives that require people to develop and grow the skills needed to move toward the vision?
  • Do we engage people in a process that builds accountability, willingness and confidence to act in an empowered way?

As helpful and appropriate as these tools were, and continue to be, the subject of PSM leadership must be brought down to an individual, and even personal, level. Many companies strive for felt leadership but don't know how to implement it, particularly with regard to PSM.

Besides ensuring their visibility to the organization, leaders relentlessly must make time to spend with employees and contractors. Only then will people in the company do the same. Managers wanting to demonstrate felt leadership must recognize they have a teacher/trainer role. That entails developing their own safety skills and passing them along. This takes time and resources for leaders and their subordinates so both can improve their safety skills. It's a prerequisite for improving PSM. Managers should practice what they preach. In other words, if they notice an unsafe situation, they should do something about it. This implies maintaining a good self-safety focus and ongoing self-assessment.

Effective PSM requires constant affirmation that safety is the highest priority. Managers who demonstrate a keen interest in safety can help enormously. Walking through a work area, they should comment on safety, identify and reinforce what's being done well and correct what's unsafe. At times, this will necessitate learning about the safety issues that exist on the shop floor and how they can be handled — but the effort will pay off. If a CEO takes the time to walk across the shop floor and points out to an employee a hazard that might injure the person, it sends a powerful message about the value the company places on safety.

At every level, managers should engage in conversation with employees to check whether they understand and apply the core safety principles of their tasks. That also underlines the clear focus leaders have on SHE expectations. It should be understood from the start that the expectation is zero incidents and progress towards that goal should be discussed and publicized regularly. Periodically, it helps to pay particular attention to one area that needs safety improvement. Last but not least, leaders should recognize and reward safety success.

This ideal of a manager demonstrating felt leadership contains many seemingly obvious elements — but how many leaders take the time to put them into practice or understand how to do so? How many of them know what questions to ask operations personnel, the line manager and others? We have worked with many companies in the chemical industry that struggle to visualize or project such leadership effectively into their environment or culture. They don't know how to be supportive and don't ask probing questions needed to strengthen a culture of PSM excellence.

In workshops with these companies, we've suggested a variety of different scenarios. Take a plant visit, for example. Managers can review a broad range of PSM elements on their tour. They can ask operations personnel about:

  •  any incidents that have occurred in other similar operations;
  • the frequency and nature of emergency and disaster mock drills;
  • the number and nature of recent near-misses and the follow-up from investigations into these and any other incidents that have occurred in the plant;
  • the results of recent PSM audits and what weaknesses were identified; and
  • whether any tests or process changes are active in the plant.

Another suggestion is to discuss the procedure governing the activity underway and ask how well it's written and followed. Managers also can ask about work permits. Posing questions shows some interest in PSM but isn't enough. Leaders must actively listen to answers and accept suggestions, take the time to review any work permits or procedures they are shown, and attentively evaluate the quality of the risk assessment and precautions taken to mitigate identified risks.

Internally at DuPont, we use felt leadership cards to help operations managers assess how best to demonstrate their commitment to PSM. These cards cover our PSM checklist:

  • What is my spoken and unspoken message to the organization on PSM expectations — i.e., they're integral to core values and business success or a "necessary evil?"
  • What have I done this month to review PSM metrics and performance indicators for the site?
  • What am I doing to reinforce operational discipline?
  • Is my organization providing adequate rewards and recognition for PSM accomplishments?
  • How is my organization performing versus annual PSM performance rating metrics and objectives?
  • Where must we enhance short- and long-term PSM resources and organizational capabilities?
  • What's the status of PSM integration improvements at recently acquired sites or businesses?
  • What are my direct subordinates doing to reinforce the value, expectations and accountabilities for PSM on an ongoing and consistent basis?
  • Are we providing enough support and resources to maintain site equipment and infrastructure?
  • What have I done to engage new leaders in my organization who play key PSM roles to ensure personnel involved in management-of-change activities are effective?
  • Have I established clear measures on overall PSM program performance (i.e., not just a focus on incidents)?
  • On a practical level, these guidelines translate into day-to-day actions. Leaders who genuinely want to improve PSM through felt leadership must live by example — and look, ask, listen and adapt. That includes:
  • ensuring workers have the correct tools and personal protective equipment (and that all equipment is in good condition);
  • encouraging reports on unsafe conditions;
  • welcoming and acting on suggestions;
  • rapidly responding to workers' safety concerns;
  • investigating incidents promptly and fully;
  • stopping work if necessary to correct unsafe practices;
  • prohibiting risky shortcuts to get a job completed;
  • removing unsafe employees from their task; and
  • promoting discussions about safety.

Unfortunately, at many companies shop floor employees could have predicted — but were too intimidated to mention beforehand — incidents that occurred. An environment in which employees feel they can't speak up or contradict managers on safety strategy is a disaster waiting to happen. 

The successful implementation of robust PSM systems in complex chemical operations requires a high degree of order and high-quality decision-making. Senior managers play a fundamental role in creating a culture where all members of the organization respond to PSM needs and perform related tasks at a very high level. They must exercise felt leadership if PSM is to succeed.

BRIAN RAINS is global practice leader for process safety management at DuPont Sustainable Solutions, Wilmington, DE. E-mail him at [email protected].

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