October 7, 2021

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EHS Congress

‘We need to ask ourselves as leaders, what can we do to improve the workplace setup to support people?’

Ahead of EHS Congress 2021, which takes place in Berlin from 9-10 November 2021, SHP, an event media partner, discusses how organisations can adapt their approach to safety, with former Director of Human Performance at BP, and speaker at this year’s event, Diane Chadwick-Jones.

“I joined BP after graduating from Imperial College, London and began on the general graduate trainee scheme. I had a number of jobs within BP operations including, production planning at a refinery and within drilling programmes in Brazil. I had gained a wealth of experience in operations before joining the safety department in 2005 to work on Six Sigma projects. From that I became involved in safety culture improvement work, and eventually operationalising a “systems thinking” approach by improving the way work, is set up to reduce the possibility of mistakes and make work more effective. I retired from BP in 2020 and I now focus on education, mentoring and advocacy related to modernising approaches to safety.”

Your ethos is very much that safety is all about setting people up for success, why do you think that?

“When I was in operations, there were, of course, complicated issues that were quite difficult to resolve. Moving into the safety department provided me with another way to look at the complexity and underlying conditions that may have contributed to those issues. It starts with leadership, establishing the expectations and resources, and there can be two paths – to say, ‘follow the rules or there will be consequences’; or to say, ‘follow the rules and if for any reason you can’t, speak up and we’ll see how we can fix this’. Clearly, the second path is about finding and resolving the organisational weaknesses that people are struggling with. Usually, the system, or the process, has unidentified error traps in design that in real life conditions could catch users out. People come to work to do their best, so we need to ask ourselves as leaders, what can we do to improve the workplace setup to support people?

“Even in successful tasks, issues are encountered where problem-solving is required to save us from disaster. Let’s consider a football match. There are many interactions, it is dynamic, with players, the pitch, the weather, and the spectators. It’s a comparison to the workplace – where there are many components to the workplace system. The ball is the risk. We could blame the goalkeeper for letting the ball into the net (an incident or an emergent event), but it had to pass through many parts of the pitch before it reached the goal. Consider that there is a goalless draw in the match. If you’re a spectator or coach and only looking at the scoreboard – you see nothing. But on the pitch, there is constant risk management and adaptation. Its full of near misses, handovers, great tackles, and catches. So, this is successful work – and you can learn from it by discussing the issues and walking through what is happening.”

Why is it important to learn about the contributing factors to incidents and why is human error often incorrectly blamed?

“No matter how well we think a task has been planned or designed (work-as-imagined), there are always differences when it comes to execution (work-as-done). Those who do the job will always have to design the last part of it – dealing with local conditions, problem-solving issues they come across, or making the best of the equipment and processes they have. To give a generic example, a person may not follow a procedure correctly, not because they don’t want to, but because a procedure may be unclear, or because the plan is not quite right for the job. If an incident happens, people are only the last, and most visible, of many components in a complex workplace system that has difficult-to-predict interactions that lead to increased risk. So, that is why error is incorrectly blamed. What can we do about it? We know that the closer we can get to the way work is really done, by walking through a job, talking and working with the people who do the job, the more likely we can identify and head off problems before they become incidents.”

How can organisations adopt “just” or fair culture, and how hard is it to implement or change a company’s culture?

“Let’s recognise why blame exists. Not only do we see a simplified version of events, but we have a psychological bias called ‘fundamental attribution error’. We can place a lot of emphasis on the traits of a person, rather than external context, to explain another person’s behaviour in a given situation. In addition, the judgement on a person’s ‘fault’ will depend on our mental model of incident causation. If we believe that accidents are caused by individuals and their ‘unsafe acts’, we may be more likely to blame those involved. If, however, we see accidents as the outcomes emerging from complex interactions between components of an organisational system, then we are more likely to see error or workarounds as symptoms of systemic weaknesses.

“And therein lies the key to moving away from blame towards learning. When we build skills in an organisation to understand the intricacies of incident causation and help leaders respond in a supportive way when things don’t go to plan, then we are better able to find out what the underlying contributing factors that need to be resolved are. We can strengthen this fair culture by updating processes such as risk assessments and incident investigations to look at what is making the work difficult, so the focus is on workplace-related improvements.”

Finally, you will be speaking at EHS Congress in Berlin in November, what can delegates expect from your session?

“Firstly, I’m keen to go to Berlin and looking forward to this being an in-person event. I’m excited to be discussing with peers about the practical implementation of the more modern aspects of safety.

“In my session, I’m going to talk about how we can modernise our approach to safety – the key things to do. About 20 years ago it was thought that safety was about improving the behaviour of the workforce – that the processes and procedures were perfect, and people were the problem with “unsafe acts”. But time and time again, statistical studies showed that leadership influence was strongly linked to incidents, rather than workforce attitudes.

“In the past five years, studies explain the mechanism for this effect: that leaders influence how the work is set up – the priority of safety, the level of speak up and the ability to look at ‘work-as-imagined’ vs ‘work-as-done’, since, as we know, we can’t change people, but we can change the conditions they work under. For example – safety leadership has a direct, negative effect on work pressure, and a direct, positive effect on environmental conditions and occupational hazards. So, my session will be about the practical implementation of safety leadership to enable human performance: how to change mental models of incident causation, how to build skills in leaders and workforce, and how to adjust existing tools so that we can embed the ability to design safer work so people can work safely.”

Hear more from Diane Chadwick-Jones on day one of EHS Congress 2021 in her talk, ‘Human error is a result not a cause’, from 9-10 November.

Click here for the full EHS Congress agenda, COVID guidelines and to register for a place at the event.

Click here for more from EHS Congress on SHP.

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2 years ago

Love this article! Sums it up perfectly.