AS EXECUTIVES OFTEN POINT OUT, SAFETY IS OF PARAMOUNT IMPORTANCE IN THE CHEMICAL INDUSTRY—AND COMPANIES HAVE MADE SAFETY PERFORMANCE AN AREA OF INTENSE FOCUS.
But safety improvements do not always come easily. While new technologies and process improvements have led to greater efficiency and higher quality in plants, safety-improvement efforts have essentially made little, if any, headway.
One of the keys to improving safety is the creation of a more effective safety culture—one that does not emphasize production over safety. Today, companies have the opportunity to create such cultures by refocusing leadership, rethinking their approach to safety-related communications and leveraging advancing digital technology.
In addition, they will need to understand and meet the emerging challenges inherent in changing workforce demographics, as younger workers replace older workers. In the end, by building an effective safety culture, chemical companies can not only reduce injuries, they can also strengthen production, increase operational agility and move ahead on the journey to becoming a high-performance business.
UNDERSTANDING THE CHALLENGES
One factor behind this inability to move the needle is the nature of safety culture—that is, the collective behavior and norms of employees involved in production. Because safety relies so heavily on following correct procedures, culture is a dominant driver of safety. However, the safety culture found in chemical plants today is not always effective. In essence, safety culture and the overall business culture are more or less separate. Too often, chemical companies have inadvertently created two distinct perspectives that can be summed up as “safety versus production.” The workforce sees this as a polarized, either-or choice, with the need to meet production targets conflicting with the need to complete work safely.1 In that conflict, production typically takes precedence. The result is the creation of a cultural norm focusing on “doing whatever it takes to get the job done.” That in turn can lead to behaviors, such as rushing and taking short cuts, which contribute to the increased risk of an incident occurring on the job.
Much of this perspective flows from higher up in the organization, through the kind of messages that management sends to the workforce. Safety is usually a core value at chemical companies, but executives and managers often fail to “walk the talk” and reinforce that value. Instead, their actions tend to emphasize—and reward—production performance.
THE CHANGING WORKFORCE
Creating an effective safety culture is only getting more complicated, thanks to the growing number of retiring baby boomers. Many chemical industry workers have reached or are close to reaching retirement age. In addition, there is pent up demand for retirement that may accelerate that trend. During the recession of a few years ago, financial realities drove a significant number of workers to remain on the job after the traditional retirement age of 65. But that has been changing, and from 2010 to 2014 the percentage of baby boomers reporting that they are retired increased from 10 percent to 17 percent.2
To a great extent, the industry is still in the early stages of the baby boomer retirement wave, and such challenges are likely to grow. Overall, 86 percent of respondents in the ACC-Accenture survey said that profitability in the chemical industry will suffer if those talent losses are not addressed in the next five years.6 Meanwhile, those departing workers will often be replaced by millennials, who in 2015 became the largest age demographic in the overall labor pool.7 By 2025, it is expected that they will make up 75 percent of the global workforce.8 That means that the industry will see a large influx of newcomers who need to be brought up to speed on safety and operations quickly—at the same time that To improve safety performance, companies need to address these issues—and they can start by resetting their approach to shaping safety culture. Companies need to integrate production with safety and instill an understanding that they are inseparable. Executives, managers and workers should be made to understand that improved safety leads to fewer incidents, which in turn drives reduced downtime and opens the door to the achievement of production goals. potential older coaches and mentors are retiring in large numbers. What’s more, millennial workers bring a distinct set of attitudes to the table. As a group, they are well educated and technologically savvy. But they also differ from older workers in their expectations about work. They tend to want more feedback and acknowledgment, and they value flexibility and work-life balance. Instilling a safety culture in this increasingly important segment of the workforce will require new approaches to communicating about and supporting safety. Just doing “more of the same” is not likely to be effective.