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The “Art” of Staying Safe: Effective Leadership

  April 2018 / Vol 8 Issue 2

The “Art” of Staying Safe: Effective Leadership
By: Tony Calderelli, Crawford Custom Consulting


A 1500-pound wrecking ball rolls almost a mile down the main street of a county seat in western Pennsylvania. Although there were no serious injuries, there certainly could’ve been, and there was a lot of property damage. An oil field hand receives life-threatening and life altering injuries when working in a location where the company’s written operational standards, that he had been trained in, were not being followed. How did this happen?

Warren Bennis said: “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are bornthat there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” That failing to understand how good leaders are made (and failing to develop them) is “dangerous” seems overstated. It is not.

In the past few decades the science of keeping workers safe has made tremendous progress. Virtually every company in Oil & Gas has dedicated safety professionals, well written safety standards, proper safety equipment, and deliver in some form, safety training. So why is there still accidents and incidents, injuries and fatalities? The Science of safety has clearly progressed in gas and oil. Whether or not the “Art” of keeping people safe has progressed depends. The following was part of a job description / position announcement for an entry level safety officer at an operation in western PA:

“- Ensure compliance with Local, State and Federal safety & health regulations.”

“- Ensure that OSHA guidelines are met and all documentation is prepared and
stored for the required time frame.”

An “entry level” safety professional can certainly take charge of safety documents, but can he or she ensure that OSHA guidelines are met or ensure compliance with anything? This person could potentially write and train employees on company policies, that if followed would ensure regulatory compliance and thus a safe work place, but only leaders can ensure safety (and all other) standards are actually being followed. The “Art” of keeping people safe, is the Art of Leadership.

We do lots of training in Oil & Gas. We do technical training, and safety training, and compliance training and etc. We train our employees in every facet of their jobs. However, if the job is leading other people we often dismiss the need to develop leaders for some reason. Without leaders with the ability to enforce the standards the employees learn in training, we are missing a huge piece of the safety puzzle. The safety puzzle only has three main pieces, and it isn’t really a puzzle, it’s a three-legged stool. Those three legs are “Write The Standards,” “Train The Standards” and Enforce The Standards.

As with any three-legged stool, if one leg is removed it all comes crashing down. As mentioned above, the Oil and Gas Industry has made tremendous advances in the science of safety. Policies and Procedures (AKA “Standards”) developed by Safety Professionals are in place virtually everywhere. Nearly every organization has a program of Safety Training, particularly for Short Service Employees. But training supervisors in the art of leadership is not nearly as common. For some reason we think the skill set involved in leading others somehow instinctual. It is not.

“Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.” — Coach Vince Lombardi

I don’t know how many times I have heard from an oilfield supervisor that “my guys won’t do that.” This is particularly true when the “that” in question is a safety policy or procedure. My first thought is always, “but as a supervisor, it is your job to ensure that they do that.”  My second thought is always a question: “Did anyone give you any tools or information to help you enforce those standards?” The answer is often, “no.”

The best, most thoughtfully developed safety procedures and policies (standards) are useless if they are not followed. Unless following these standards is enforced by a leader, there is a good chance they may not be. Unless the hard effort is made by the industry to develop leaders, the leaders (particularly new leaders) may not have the skills and confidence to effectively enforce standards (safety standards or any standards).

Developing leaders in light of “The Great Crew Change” (the talent drain about to impact the Oil & Gas industry due to the retirement of large numbers of senior personnel) is especially crucial. In industry and work force development publications there are many examples of statements such as:

“Shortage of new leaders is a hangover from last market downturn” – Bloomberg News

“Given the thin leadership bench, many companies are turning to intensive training programs to replace what years of on-the-job experience previously provided.” – Lucas Group White Paper

The Lucas Paper said it as well as it can be said. Unfortunately, many companies are NOT yet making the hard effort to develop leaders who can enforce the standards, policies and procedures that keep the workforce safe.

My colleagues at Crawford Custom Consulting are mainly “crane guys”. They do crane training, crane inspection, rigging testing and inspection; all that sort of thing. And they do it by the book (in the case of the Crane Certification Association of America, they helped write the book). When they train, they are thorough (I have been through their classes). They cover two of the three legs of our “safety stool”; having written standards and enforcing them. Another service they provide is incident/accident investigation. What they often find is that a standard wasn’t followed. A crane doesn’t just magically tip over. It was being operated outside the standards set in the load chart. A leader didn’t enforce standards. A wrecking ball doesn’t roll down main street all by its self. A leader didn’t enforce standards.

Until we give supervisors / leaders in the Oil and Gas Industry the skills to lead well and enforce safety standards effectively, we are not being as safe as we can be. Not by a long shot.