"Safety" does not belong to safety experts, but belongs in the workplace. That is Rob Kreté's firm belief. During his career as a project and process manager in the industry, the chemical engineer experienced a serious incident that radically changed his view of the concept of safety.
Rob Kreté is a man with a mission: to bring safety in companies back to the level where it belongs. In his view, decades of development of process and occupational safety in the (chemical) industry have led to a devaluation of safety thinking. He summarized it in his book "Safety from Within" and discusses his vision during the Health and Safety study day on social safety on 25 November. "Safety is not a burden, but a strength".
Safety often organized away from the workplace
He says about this: "Within many organizations, safety has been organized away from the workplace and has become an independent specialist discipline. That is not logical, because this creates a gap between those who advise and draw up rules and those who implement them in the work process. It must be fully integrated within every link of the business. Employees at all levels of the company must be aware of the why and how of working safely at all times. This intrinsically motivated safety from within is much more effective than imposing rules and procedures from above."
Series of incidents and failures at new chemical plant
"Safety is not a separate task field, but must be fully integrated in every link of the business operations"
A vision that took hold with Kreté after his own practical experiences. In 2013, he was site manager of a newly built chemical plant, which was faced with a series of incidents and breakdowns shortly after opening. "At first I thought we were dealing with teething problems. We had written a safety plan for the new plant with my team and I felt that the staff were well educated and trained. Yet there were constant failures and safety systems were found not to function properly.
Under pressure from the management, who wanted to start producing in order to supply the customers with their promised purchases, production was restarted again and again. Until an investigation showed that, during an incident, a large amount of an extremely toxic substance had leaked from the installation, without being noticed. Then I realized that the problem was much more structural and the installation just wasn't designed properly. The facility simply could not function safely and so I shut it down.”
Safety policy in industry too theoretical by nature
A very intensive period followed, with lawsuits and heavy discussions with the management as well as with the safety region and the environmental service. The conclusion, according to Kreté, was that parts of the process installation had to be redesigned and adapted and that a completely new "Hazard Analysis Operability Study, HAZOP for short, had to be carried out. In the end, it took five months before the factory could be restarted safely, with all the economic damage that entailed.
“The most important lesson I have learned from that practical experience is that the safety policy in the industry is too theoretical in nature. It mainly consists of books with procedures and checklists. I wanted to get rid of that culture. The factory in question was a high-risk company that was subject to the Brzo regulations. Then you can't settle for a six or seven for your safety efforts. The risks in such companies are so high that you should always go for a nine or ten."
Targeted safety design for every business situation
'Involvement is the key to an internally motivated safety culture'
"Standard safety rules do not exist at such companies. Safety must be designed specifically for every business situation and must be fully integrated into every aspect of operations and production. You can only achieve this if you make every individual employee, from line manager to operator and mechanic, jointly responsible for working safely. Commitment is the key to an internally motivated safety culture. Actually, you shouldn't even talk about safety culture. Because then it seems as if safety is something that is separate from other goals in the company, but that is an illusion. For the same reason, it is not good for a company to say that safety is a 'first priority'. Then you don't get the idea of 'integrated security'.”
Safety as a strength
This integrated security is a challenge, Kreté agrees. The traditional view of many managers is that safety is difficult and costs a lot of money. But with the right approach, he says, just the opposite can be achieved. "No company sells safety as a product, but it is a precondition for being able to produce and make a profit at all. Incidents, accidents, injuries and absenteeism also cost the company money and damage its reputation, especially if a company is shut down for a longer period of time due to failing on safety."
"Employees must be given the opportunity to make mistakes and to learn from them."
"That risk can be limited by smartly organizing safety in business operations. Put the responsibility where it belongs. With the managers in the line organization and with the employees on the shop floor. Make them co-responsible and create involvement of each employee in their own work situation. Let people contribute their own ideas and participate in decisions about issues that promote their safety in the workplace."
People in the workplace make the difference between safe and unsafe
"Make employees jointly responsible and involved in their own work situation"
Kreté emphasizes that it is the people in the workplace who can make the difference between safe and unsafe working and not the safety experts such as the HSE managers and safety experts. They have an important role, and that is that they facilitate involvement with their knowledge of risks and risk management.
The work process and business operations must be structured in such a way that employees are given the space to submit their own ideas and proposals for safe working to the management. "This also includes the space to make mistakes, without directly resulting in major consequences such as punishment, relegation or dismissal. Because no one is perfect. You also create safety by learning from mistakes. I am convinced that this internally motivated safe working is much more effective than dictated safety based on rules, checklists and sanctions.
Companies that follow this philosophy will find that they perform better in general. Committed and motivated employees who feel co-responsible perform better. This allows more effective and efficient production and reduces the costs of disruptions and absenteeism. In this way, safety is not a burden for companies, but a strength."
Creating involvement and co-responsibility in the workplace is, according to Rob Kreté, a bridge to social and psychological safety within the company. One cannot exist without the other. Making employees at all organizational levels co-responsible requires a style of leadership that also gives them the space to do so.
"Employees should feel free to discuss things that could be done better"
"In concrete terms, it means that managers do not patronize people with rigid rules and sanctions for violations. It is important that people receive respect and appreciation for their work and feel deeply that they make an essential contribution to a safe work situation and healthy business operations. This must also be reflected in how management deals with reports of inadequacies or unsafe work situations."
"If someone reports a safety incident or a dangerous situation and he does not receive a serious answer or is subsequently looked at by supervisors or colleagues, he does not report a second time. The same applies to the imposition of sanctions for relatively minor offences. Such an action undermines support."
"As an employee, you must feel unrestricted to be able to discuss matters that could be improved, without internal fear that you will be held accountable in any way. With the right approach, stimulate people to want to work safely based on their own inner conviction. Wanting is a stronger force than having to.”
text | Rob Jastrzebski
source (Dutch) | Arbo Online