Process Safety Leadership Site Visits

Article by Ashley Hynds CEng FIChemE

Performed well, leadership visits play a vital role in supporting a positive safety culture at a site. Ashley Hynds introduces DNV’s toolkit which promotes effective engagement, helping leaders see what’s really happening on the frontline

SITE visits can really help leaders engage with their workforce, better understand the risks their teams are facing, and motivate and encourage desirable process safety behaviours. But is this always the case?

Many of us will have been on the receiving end of a VIP visit at some point in our careers. I’ll never forget the half-hour I spent discussing process safety at my plant with Sir Jim Ratcliffe, chairman and CEO of INEOS, which was both challenging and inspiring. His emphasis on the importance of understanding the technology and good operating discipline were particularly noteworthy. But I’ve also hosted visits with minimal engagement that have left a negative impression of the leader’s commitment to safety. Some senior executives simply don’t have the competence or confidence to address process safety topics well. The interactions between leadership, whether it be board members, directors, middle management, or supervisors and those at the frontline can really matter, but they can be difficult to get right.

The rule of Saint Benedict and the army base commander

Saint Benedict (pictured) was an Italian Christian who founded several monasteries in the sixth century.

He established a set of rules for his monks to follow, which subsequently became the model for monastic living throughout Europe. The rules included the principle of “always listen to and respect the youngest monk in the monastery, and involve them in decisions, because often the Lord reveals what is best to a junior brother”. There is a story, that within the British Army, a particular base commander who travelled the country had taken Saint Benedict’s guidance to heart. He always requested to be picked up from the train station and driven around by the most junior cadet from the base he was visiting. And he reassured his driver that “what got said in the car, stayed in the car”. So if he heard something of concern, he would go and find out about it another way to protect his source.

In the context of process safety, this resonates well with the practice of actively looking for weak signals, which may not travel easily up the management hierarchy, and the importance of getting direct feedback from the frontline.

So what leadership behaviours are important for setting a positive safety culture? And how might these be displayed during site visits? How can you build an effective site visit leadership programme? What should leaders do when they visit a site? Who should they speak to? What should they look at? How should they deal with what they see and hear?

DNV’s leadership site visit toolkit

To help answer these questions, DNV has developed a toolkit containing general guidance on the organisation and conduct of leadership site visits, and a suite of activities which leaders can choose from to help engage effectively with workers. The toolkit is based upon published good practice, and my own observations of senior leader site visits and associated visit protocols made while working in major hazard sectors as a site manager, regulatory inspector, and process safety consultant.

The toolkit is designed to be used by leaders at all levels. As well as the more obvious application by those in engineering and operations roles, it can also be used to support those in other functions such as HR, finance, procurement, logistics, etc.

The toolkit also gives guidance on planning and conduct of visits; the importance of walking the talk and role modelling positive safety behaviours; the power of engagement with safety representatives; listening and challenging; setting standards; giving feedback; and follow-up of issues arising.

Article by Ashley Hynds CEng FIChemE

Senior principal consultant at DNV Services (UK)

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