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Functional Safety Culture: What Is a Business Leader's Role?

You’re on the business side of the enterprise, not on the engineering side—how could functional safety possibly be your responsibility?  

“Safety is everyone’s responsibility,” you likely just thought to yourself, dutifully. While that’s certainly true, do you really have a deep understanding of your specific role and responsibility? Do you have defined goals, KPIs, and timelines? Does your boss understand your contribution and support you with time and budget? 

If any of those questions make you a little nervous, you’re in the right place. (If none of those questions make you nervous, you’re still in the right place—we’d love to bring you into the conversation and learn more about how you’ve tackled these challenges in your facility.) 

Consider this: the head of Transocean testified that while he wished his crew had done more to prevent the infamous Deepwater Horizon disaster, the company’s investigation found no failure of management.

How is that possible? The only explanation, outside of dishonesty, is the disconnect between a company’s business leaders and its real, on-the-ground, actual safety posture.  

“Our facilities have been accident-free for 495 days,” you just thought, rather smugly. But what constitutes an accident in your internal reporting practices? What incentives will managers lose for reporting minor or repeated problems with equipment or people? Are audits being conducted, or are you relying on proactive incident reporting to uncover issues? Do you monitor leading indicators regularly? 

Now that you’re sufficiently concerned, it’s time to explore the role and responsibility that you have for creating and sustaining a safety culture as a business leader in a process facility.  

Quick Tips 

Creating a Safety Culture: A Leader’s Role 

According to an article written by Scott Stricoff, president of the consulting firm BST, there are four organizational elements critical to a safety culture:  

  • Anticipation: recognizing and acting on the weak signals that indicate potential for events 
  • Inquiry: ensuring the right questions are asked and the right analyses are done 
  • Execution: using systems consistently and reliably 
  • Resilience: enabling workers to have the knowledge and willingness to intervene on small issues and prevent them from becoming big issues 

 As a business leader in a process facility, your role includes the following:  

Understand 

  • Develop a working knowledge of the IEC/ISA 61511 functional safety standards, which are considered “good engineering practice” by OSHA, have been adopted as national standards by every country in the European Union, and are now referenced in the Canadian Electrical Code  
  • Determine the levels of expertise needed at each level of personnel, and  
  • At regular intervals, take time to sit down with peers and subordinates and listen to their challenges

Communicate 

  • Develop, and articulate, a comprehensive strategy for achieving functional safety 
  • Include safety strategy as a regular topic on the agenda for meetings with your bosses and with your subordinates

Delegate 

  • Assign responsibility for safety-related tasks and decisions; set clear objectives and measures; monitor process and progress
  • Oversee contractor practices; make sure your managers have documented requirements and processes for contracted labor resources, especially related to safety-critical functions

Anticipate  

  • Focus on leading indicators and proactive asset management  
  • Remember that leading indicators aren’t just physical or technical in nature; often, complacency of employees or contractors is your biggest leading indicator for safety problems 

Document  

  • Encourage, and even reward, accurate reporting and documentation of incidents, including small ones that might hint at larger issues  
  • Review documentation thoroughly and make sure management is following up on recommendations and resolutions 
  • Remember that documentation isn’t an indictment of your facility’s failures—it’s evidence of committed and capable employees, strong management, and well-defined procedures to resolve small issues before they become big ones. Documentation is the only way we can turn individual observations into actionable improvements, because otherwise, you’ll never see the trends that are emerging in your operations  

Prioritize  

  • Decide that the long game is more important, or at least equally important. Process safety is a marathon, not a sprint. Budgets and profitability, when viewed in the short term, could be seen as barriers to a safety culture—but when you look at profitability as a long-term objective, you’ll see that well trained, careful, measure-twice-cut-once employees will be safer AND more productive  
  • As renowned inventor Dean Kamen likes to say, “we get what we celebrate.” What are you incentivizing through your company’s bonus, performance evaluation, or promotion practices? You might be saying, “safety is important” with your words, but are you saying it where it counts? Or, are you inadvertently disincentivizing reporting of smaller incidents, prioritizing uptime over important proactive maintenance, and without meaning to, rewarding a “sweep it under the rug” mentality?

As a business leader in the modern world, remember that functional safety is among the most important responsibilities you have—for your employees, for your company, and for your community.

Next Steps

Learn more about functional safety training from the International Society of Automation (ISA), as well as its certificate programs and other resources.

Contact one of our experts to talk about your safety training options with ISA:

Heidi Cooke, PMP
Senior Workforce Development Consultant
hcooke@isa.org
+1 919 990 9405

Matt Rothkopf
Team Leader and Senior Workforce Development Consultant
mrothkopf@isa.org
+1 919 990 9403

Jennifer Infantino Halsey
Jennifer Infantino Halsey
Jennifer Infantino Halsey is the director of marketing and communications for ISA.

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