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Is health and safety intervention hampered by culture?

1st February 2013


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Glen Robertson describes a dramatic approach to health and safety intervention in the offshore sector.

By understanding the factors that influence human behaviour, we can create a safer work environment. The UK's Health & Safety Executive (HSE) identifies such factors as: environmental, organisational, job related and also human and individual characteristics.  

Missing from this list are cultural and relationship factors – in the oil and gas sector the impact of culture and relationships is best illustrated by their effect on Health & Safety intervention.

Most people in the oil and gas industry work alongside others. Therefore, any unsafe act will be witnessed by a colleague who could then intervene. If anyone who witnesses an unsafe act makes the choice to intervene, then this acts as a powerful safety mechanism.

However, people can be reluctant to intervene because they fear the response they might get from colleagues, direct reports or those senior to them.  They may also not know how to intervene, lacking the necessary skills or confidence.

Many organisations within the O&G sector identify intervening as a key part of their behavior-based safety system.  Some also recognize that people need to be actively encouraged and supported to intervene through initiatives that:

* Raise awareness among staff of the cultural and relationship factors that influence people's readiness to intervene
* Support staff to develop their confidence and skills in intervening.

How can this encouragement be given?  Shell and Petroleum Geo-Services are two global organizations that recognise the value of intervention as a safety process. They have invested time and resources into developing drama based training programs that provide a ‘hands on’ approach to meeting these objectives. Here we will discuss what these training programs look like, and how they work.

Shell's behaviour-based safety system, is based around three golden tules: complying, intervening and respecting. Shell re-designed a series of mobilization workshops for their seismic and marine vessel crews in order to reinforce these rules in the context of 'personal responsibility'.

In diverse groups, in terms of rank and role, the crews discussed their experiences and their attitudes towards intervening in response to a drama ‘Nils Story'.

Nils story is based on a real incident, concerning two highly trained and experienced electricians – Anders and Nils. There is faulty equipment on Nils’ vessel which requires urgent repair. Anders offers to help out because he has had a similar problem on his own vessel. They set to work. There is an explosion which leaves Anders dead and Nils needing hospital treatment.

In the investigation that follows, Nils admits that they failed to comply with basic safety procedures. The relationship between the two men is highlighted as a critical factor. Their close friendship led to a relaxed and informal approach in which basic safety procedures were ignored.

Nils trusted Anders and felt obliged to him for his offer of help.  This encouraged him to overlook his own responsibilities, leading to a passive attitude, despite his own authority and experience.

In sharing their own views and experiences, the crews who watched the drama identified the cultural and relationship factors that influence their readiness to intervene, for example:

* Not wanting to offend senior people or create conflict with peers.
* Assuming that senior people know what they’re doing.
* Feeling pressure from peers to keep quiet.
* Feeling pressure from leaders to get the job done quickly.

Factors like these cannot be dealt with unless people are given the opportunity to identify them and acknowledge their impact. Stories and action learning techniques have proven to be an accessible and powerful way of doing this

Improving the quality of interventions

Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS) also identified fear of conflict as a barrier to intervening. They have a system of ‘Safe Cards’ which enables staff to report unsafe acts and situations. Their objective was to improve the quality of interventions by providing staff with the opportunity to practice and develop skills.

Again this was achieved by introducing a story led training program - The ‘Safe Card’ content was used to create a drama, presented by actors, portraying a series of typical unsafe acts and situations.  

The culture and values of office-based staff within PGS was highlighted by the characters’ behaviour in the drama. This was then examined by staff, who worked with the actors to question and discuss what they had witnessed from both angles: the person making the intervention and the person whose behaviour is being questioned.  

This process gave individuals within PGS the opportunity to explore and try out how they might intervene, in a safe learning environment. The fact that they did this alongside colleagues helped to support a culture shift within the team, in which the importance of intervention was understood, and its practice encouraged and accepted.

Summary

There is no doubt that cultural and relationship factors influence people’s readiness to intervene. By acknowledging and addressing these factors, and by giving people the opportunity to practice behaving differently, organisations can develop intervention as one safety mechanism that will make a difference.  

As we have discussed, a number of major organisations within the sector recognise the importance of intervention.  Many have invested in new ‘action’ based training techniques where drama could be used to address culture and relationship issues that act as barriers to intervention. This can prove helpful in shifting attitudes and developing confidence among staff and managers to take personal responsibility for safety.

Glen Robertson is a Director of international learning and development consultancy Forum Interactive, Edinburgh, UK. www.foruminteractive.co.uk


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