Trust: The Safety Silver Bullet

Article by W Ian Hamilton

Human factors expert W Ian Hamilton reflects on the process of fixing trust in order to fix safety in the workplace

The last 30 years have been a golden era for safety professionals, with a wealth of emerging methods to choose from. These include behavioural and cultural safety, positive safety, safety 2, and safety differently; all of which acknowledge the role of human capability for the successful management of risk.

But I want to offer a more personal perspective on trust as the essential ingredient for the improvement of safety. In my experience I have come to realise that this is the critical element for success in any safety improvement campaign.

Lessons from my own experiences


Along with colleagues, I was involved in a major project to consolidate maintenance practices to improve mechanical integrity on a major refinery in the US. The project included the introduction of risk-based asset management software and associated modifications of the work practices. This included the creation of a suite of documents to describe the in-field practices that had previously resided exclusively and proudly in the heads of the close-knit maintenance team. The project became stymied by distrust.

The workforce believed (incorrectly) that the documentation of their work practices was part of a plan by management to replace them with contract labour. They felt their expertise was being devalued and their role undermined, the effect of which fuelled dispute and suspicion. The solution required the application of some emotional intelligence through months of careful discussion, team building, and coaching to reassure the team that their position was secure and that their expertise was held in high esteem. The obstacle was slowly overcome and the work put back on track once the motives and sensitivities on both sides were acknowledged.

In another case, I was part of a project to consolidate five area-specific control rooms into one central control building at another major refinery, this time in the UK. The site had a long history of troubled industrial relations. The various dispersed control room teams had evolved a kind of tribal culture. They were physically separated from one another on the large site and some distance from the management block. They felt detached, hidden, autonomous, and even a little ignored by the site’s leaders, so the suggestion of joining one central team was, at best, unappealing and, at worst, positively opposed. The teams’ behaviour was characterised by a refusal to engage with the migration project team. It was difficult even to arrange meetings to air concerns and grievances. But through perseverance a breakthrough occurred with the most alienated group: the utilities team, who had historically felt themselves to be the most unappreciated.

An attempt to schedule a meeting during the day shift led to a rebuke, “Come back at 03:00 on Sunday morning,” thinking no doubt that the project’s office-based workers wouldn’t want to do that. So, when we turned up that morning and joined the team enjoying a curry on their meal break, the shock and surprise quickly dissipated into laughter and the ice was broken. They realised we were serious and intent on hearing their point of view. From that, there was established a rolling programme of meetings, workshops, and frank discussions to address the genuine concerns of the control room teams. Reassurance and respect followed and slowly the teams coalesced into the new centralised and integrated process control team.

A lack of trust in leadership may be the determining factor for the success of any safety initiative

I have learned from experience that where safety initiatives have been unsuccessful it is because of a deeper problem rooted in the interpersonal dynamics of the group. This manifests as an unwillingness of employees and management to work together to accomplish the common, and mutually beneficial, goal of better safety. Improvements in safety clearly benefit everyone in the organisation. Why then is the success of the initiative not a unifying cause for which everyone is equally motivated? Evidence from a number of studies and my own experience shows that a lack of trust in leadership may be the determining factor for the success of any safety initiative. Low levels of trust will inhibit engagement and collaboration. In such cases, even when safety values are expressed loud and clear, these efforts will be seen as inauthentic and potentially self-serving attempts at manipulation of a distrusting workforce.

Article by W Ian Hamilton

Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors

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