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The famous moral and ethical philosopher Spinoza said: “If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.”

Chris Flint

There are plenty of ways to look at Spinoza’s quote, but at the heart of it is a simple thought – we need to learn from experiences. We can learn from our own experiences, and by studying the past, from the experiences of others too. The desired goal of many organisations is the creation of a genuine learning culture, seen by many as the key to unlocking performance on many levels, not least of all safety.

The 6th July 2018 marks 30 years since Piper Alpha, an event which changed the oil and gas industry forever. As we pause and reflect on the last 30 years, and consider what has been achieved, we should also revisit Spinoza’s quote and ask ourselves – what do we need to change to ensure we do not recreate the worst of our past, but instead genuinely create a learning culture which feeds and sustains the future of our industry?

Recently, we heard the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Energy Division Director, Chris Flint, express the concerns of the HSE regarding the very real threat of disasters caused by continued hydrocarbon releases (HCR). A real emphasis has been placed on the fact that these releases could have led to disasters similar to Piper Alpha and Deepwater Horizon, and it is often only luck which prevents this.

Mr. Flint said: “Experience from our investigations is that HCRs typically happen because there have been failings across the board. Poor plant condition and breaches of procedures are often immediate causes, but beneath that we often find a lack of leadership, a poor safety culture, and evidence that weaknesses have existed for some time but haven’t been picked up through audit, assurance and review, and then dealt with.”

(Source: Energy Voice)

“If you get the safety culture right, staff will be much more likely to spot hazards, challenge when standards aren’t right, and be engaged in improvement.”

(Source: BBC)

If we are seeing Mr Flint formalising and publicly sharing his concerns, it would be reasonable to make the assumption that the weak signals and warning signs in regard to major accident hazard potential are amplified and real. It would be useful to see his communication as an insight and understanding from a team who see many industry players in action and ask ‘what do we need to change?’

Our own experience when working with many of our clients is that the awareness and real understanding of managing and controlling low probability high consequence events is a long way from where it needs to be. Our experience has also allowed us to see too many examples where what gets done has more currency, positive feedback and attention than how it gets done; subtly socialising a tolerance to risk that attenuates the risk management tools, principles and stated values of our clients. A lack of operational discipline has been normalised at times to a level that it should be of no surprise that traditional audit and assurance protocols have not identified these weak signals and warning signs or picked up the erosion of standards.

In a quest to educate and inform, for many years the very basic hierarchy for safety was stated as Legal - in compliance with the law, Economic - good safety is good business and Moral - the right thing to do. The moral approach was always seen as where anybody who was serious about safety would operate at, and moved many organisations toward having stated company values for safety as well as principles that were designed to influence both decision making and behaviour in respect of these. If the things that need to change are culture and leadership then we need leaders who not only understand this but role model it through their decision making and behaviour.

The comments made by Mr Flint have mirrored a lot of our own experience and understanding when working with our clients. We are working hard with clients to make things different by helping them create a Culture of Care. A culture where how things are done define them beyond a compliance based approach; where leaders are trained and educated in a way that their followers are seen as the solution and not the problem, and where organisational values and principles form the DNA for decision making and behaviour in a consistent way that shapes and influences the culture and the experience of those working within it.

If you are doing that in a meaningful and sustainable way, then you are attending to what needs to change.

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