June 28, 2023

Process Safety Leadership: A (mostly) positive outlook

Culture and Clarity are strong points, but there’s room for improvement in Sharing.

Step Change in Safety and Empirisys have teamed up to deliver a survey to assess the maturity of Process Safety Leadership across the Offshore Energy Industry. The blog below will take a hot-off-the-press look at the data and highlight some key findings around Culture, Sharing and consensus across the industry.

The survey is based on the eight core Principles of Process Safety signed on to by leaders across the industry. The eight principles are shown below and translate in the survey as eight themes, each with a set of questions to explore the principle in depth.

8 Core Principles of Process Safety and their survey themes
Clarity: Clear and positive process safety leadership is at the core of managing a major hazard business and is vital to ensure that risks are effectively managed.
Competency: Process safety leadership requires senior leadership team involvement, understanding and competence.
Proactivity: Good process safety management requires constant active engagement and vigilance.
Culture: Senior leadership team visibility and promotion of process safety leadership is essential to set a positive safety culture throughout the organisation.
Engagement: Engagement of the workforce is needed in the promotion and achievement of good process safety management
Auditing: Robust and regular auditing of the safety management system and associated major accident hazard barriers, is essential to ensure that system weaknesses are identified and process safety risks are being effectively managed
Informing: Publication of process safety performance information provides important assurance about the management of risks by an organisation
Sharing: Sharing good practice across industry sectors in order to learn and implement lessons from relevant incidents occurring internally and externally to the organisation, is important to maintain the currency of corporate knowledge and competence

The survey explores each of the eight principles through a series of questions specifically designed to pull out their key aspects. Translating the answers given in the Strongly DisagreeStrongly Agree scale that was used, and adjusting for questions that were reverse-coded (where a response of Strongly Disagree denotes a positive rather than a negative), we can calculate the average score for each theme across the industry. The higher the score, the more positive the responses for each theme.

Average Score per Theme (from 0-100)

Looking at the chart above with the scores for each theme, we can immediately discern a few interesting observations.

  1. Scores are on average very positive. A score of 70.54 (for the lowest scoring theme, Sharing) would still translate somewhere between a Somewhat Agree and Agree on the 7-point scale. There are no areas of consistently poor Process Safety Leadership evident across the survey.
  2. There are three distinct clusters of themes that all score similarly. Culture, Clarity and Competency score very well on average. Engagement, Auditing and Informing also form a group that scores well (but slightly less so than the top themes). At the bottom, both Proactivity and Sharing are significantly lower scoring.
  3. It would be interesting to understand how much variability there is across themes, and to drill into particular themes in further detail. The rest of this blog will hopefully do just that.

Who Participated?

Before getting further into the scores, it’s worth knowing who completed the survey so we can understand the perspectives and relevance to the industry.

The survey has been completed by nearly 450 people representing more than 70 companies from duty holders to contractors. In terms of the individual respondents, the survey was aimed at senior industry leaders — most job titles of those completing the survey were Senior Management or Executive.

There is a mix of different tenures amongst the respondents with two distinct peaks at 2–5 years and 10–20 years. Overall, the data shows that there is a significant skew towards longer tenures within the same company although a sizeable minority still have a relatively short length of service at the same organisation.

Tenure at your current organisation

However, when looking at the length of time spent in the industry as a whole, the graph looks very different. Almost all participants have spent a significant amount of time in the industry with the highest percentage having spent 20+ years.

Tenure within the industry

Additionally, while not all participants worked in a high-hazard environment, a sizeable proportion of respondents did or did so occasionally.

High-hazard working

In summary, the respondents to the survey are senior leaders with long industry experience, a high-proportion of whom work in a high-hazard environment — a perfect cohort to understand the trends and themes emerging from the industry regarding Process Safety Leadership.

The Big Picture

The scatter chart below once again shows the scores for each theme but this time matches them against another metric: consensus (or the variance of the scores amongst all the respondents). This shows whether the scores tended to be more or less the same across most respondents, or whether there were wide differences.

The chart is separated into four quadrants. In the top right quadrant, Consistently Positive, we can see themes that are both highly-scoring but also consistently scoring. The consensus is higher which means most organisations have scored similarly. Interestingly, the only two themes which fit here are Clarity (the second highest scoring theme) and Engagement (the fourth highest scoring theme). Although Culture was the highest scoring theme, there was more variation in the scores, so while some respondents would have scored highly, others may have scored much lower. In other words, there’s a less consistent view of Culture in the industry than for Clarity or Engagement.

Scatter Pot showing Theme Score vs Variance of Score

Culture and Competency have a little more variance in responses which is to say that while some people and organisations score very highly, others may score less well. This is why the bottom-right quadrant is called Areas of Strength. There are clearly positives here and potentially some best practice that the wider industry is able to learn from.

The top-left quadrant, Improvement Needed, shows those themes that score badly and do so consistently. Auditing fits here, though only just (the average score is 76% which is high, but relative to the other scores leaves it just below the median). Proactivity also fits here but has a much lower score of only 71%.

In the bottom-left quadrant, Mixed Results, are those themes which scored badly and did so with more variance than the other themes. Sharing is the lowest scoring theme but also has the most variance — this suggests inconsistencies in approach across the industry. Informing is also in this quadrant but performs a little better.

Given that Sharing is the lowest scoring theme and the most varied in responses, let’s drill-down a little further.

Problems Sharing?

Another way to view the data from the survey is by comparing Empirical with Emotional questions. Empirical questions ask about facts and evidence. An example empirical question is “I am aware of who is responsible for major process safety risks, throughout the chain of escalation” from the Competency theme.

An emotional question on the other hand will ask about the experiences and feelings of the respondent such as “I see that leaders in the organisation continually seek to improve process safety management” from the Auditing theme.

“Emotional questions show how we think we’re doing. Empirical questions show what we are doing.”

In the first question, the answer tends to be more black-and-white — you are either aware or you are not. The variance in responses could be because you are aware of some of the people in the chain but not others, or that you are pretty sure you know the answer but you’re not 100% certain. Either way, there’s a factual answer and it would be possible to actually find the relevant people in an organisation who were responsible for major process safety risks.

Conversely, in the emotional question, there is a subjective element that is very dependent on the perspective of the respondent. It’s difficult to say with certainty whether someone is continually seeking to improve process safety management — does this mean they take actions every day? Every month? Every year? And what does “seeking to improve” actually mean?

Ultimately, the interpretation is left to the respondent and this helps to counter the purely factual questions with a more personal aspect that tells us a little more about the culture of the organisation and the sentiment of the people working in it. Asking emotional questions let us gauge how the respondents actually feel.

The radar chart below gives a useful illustration of the difference between emotional and empirical responses.

Radar chart showing responses for empirical and emotional questions.

While Auditing, Competency, Culture, and Engagement all show relatively similar scores for their empirical and emotional question responses, there are some stark differences in the other themes. Informing and Clarity show significantly higher scores for emotional questions, whereas Proactivity and Sharing show higher scores for Empirical questions. In fact Sharing shows the widest disparity in scores across the board at 15 percentage points difference.

The emotional questions and their scores in Sharing are:

Emotional questions in the Sharing theme

While the empirical questions and their scores are:

Empirical questions in the Sharing theme

The boundary between emotional and empirical is sometimes fuzzy. The question “Senior leaders do not implement learning from other organisations” could fit into the emotional category which would further emphasise the differences between the two perspectives. A naive reading of the data could suggest that the feeling attached to the Sharing theme is not echoed by the reality — that in fact, Sharing is done well in the industry despite the feeling that things could be better.

However, another perspective could be that the questions relating to the individual are relatively positive — “I openly share my own [..] experiences…” or “I derive process safety learning from successes..” while those relating to others are lower scoring “Senior leaders do not implement learnings…”. We tend to mark ourselves higher than we mark others for Sharing which reveals both an inconsistency and a truth about human nature.

Perhaps the lowest scoring question in the theme, indeed the whole survey, is the most revealing. “I know how my organisation compares to other[s]”. This is framed as an empirical question so asks for fact, not opinion and is based on both the individual “I know” and the collective “my organisation” so gives a fuller view of Sharing than any of the other questions asked. Ultimately, if knowing how an individual’s organisation compares to others in the industry is a weakness, this survey provides an opportunity to help address this.

Cultural Strength

Ending on a high, it’s worth emphasising that from a survey that showed great engagement, honesty from respondents and consistently positive scores, the most positive scores were found in the culture theme.

The distribution of scores in the Culture Theme — heavily weighted to “Strongly Agree”.

The highest scoring question in the whole survey was “It is important to me that individuals feel they can raise concerns or seek assistance when things go wrong”. On the surface, this seems like an easy question to answer, after all who would not believe it important for individuals to raise concerns when things go wrong? However, this question is informative for two reasons: even for a question where the score is expected to be high, the score is exceptionally high (only a handful of respondents didn’t choose Strongly Agree). So this is clearly a well-established cultural aspect in the industry that has a lot of importance to attached to it. The high-score acts as a marker.

Questions and Scores for the Culture Theme.

However, let’s compare it to it’s sister-question, “I feel that people in my team are reticent to report existing and potential hazards”. This scores much, much lower at 69.55. There’s a big disconnect between senior leadership feeling that raising concerns is important, and people in the team actually reporting on hazards. Why is this?

The answers are probably many and varied. But perhaps there’s a hint in the other two questions in the culture theme.

“Senior leaders engage with the workforce when on site” and “I regularly ask questions about process safety and major accident hazards” both score around the same score of 83.5, almost exactly in the middle of the high and low scoring questions. And they are both empirical questions asking about the physical manifestation of culture — in this case, engaging with the workforce and asking questions.

We could surmise that the ideal is for everybody to raise concerns as freely and often as necessary. And although this isn’t happening as much as would be desired, senior leadership is modelling the behaviour to a large degree through their ongoing engagement and curiosity (although perhaps they could do this more, or work to ensure the messaging makes it down to the front-line).

Some Early Conclusions

The data needs further analysis (as mentioned above, this is an immediate reaction to the results from the survey). But there are some key insights we’ve already been able to pull from the survey:

  1. There was a great response from across the industry with 450 respondents at 74 organisations— this shows massively high engagement in Process Safety Leadership even without looking at the scores.
  2. The scores were generally very positive, highlighting a number of areas of strength (and even the lowest scoring areas still scored relatively well).
  3. There may be challenges with a few specific themes, particularly Sharing and Proactivity which scored relatively poorly— these should be explored further and given increased focus across the sector.

What’s Next?

This blog aims to give a very brief first look at some of the emerging themes from the survey. However, there will be a lot more to follow.

This brief overview of the survey results only considered the likert questions — there is a wealth of knowledge waiting to be discovered in the open-text comments and wildcard questions for each theme. This data will be analysed and shared across the industry along with the other findings.

After the survey closes, every participating organisation will receive their results broken down across each theme for them to further explore and understand where they sit against the industry average.

Step Change in Safety and Empirisys will jointly publish and share the findings from the survey through whitepapers, social media posts and conference talks, so the whole industry is able to benefit.

And finally, we hope the participating organisations are able to use the findings to help understand their own Process Safety Leadership better, and help improve the safety of their company, their people and the industry by playing their part.

To keep up-to-date with further findings from the survey and the latest Process Safety trends and information, please follow Step Change in Safety and Empirisys.