A Dangerous Culture

With BP so much in the news because of the gushing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I was reminded of why an organization’s Culture matters…especially when it comes to Safety.

On March 23, 2005, the BP refinery at Texas City was the site of one of the most serious workplace disasters in the past 20 years. An explosion resulted in 15 deaths and over 170 injuries, and as a result, BP was fined over $21 million.

Several investigations were performed: BP did an internal investigation, and both the Chemical Safety Board (a federal agency) and the Office of Health, Safety and Security of the Department of Energy prepared reports on the disaster.

The CSB and HSS reports both cited BP’s culture as a major factor that led to the Texas City disaster.

The CSB found that “The Texas City disaster was caused by organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation. Warning signs of a possible disaster were present for several years, but company officials did not intervene effectively to prevent it. The extent of the serious safety culture deficiencies was further revealed when the refinery experienced two additional serious incidents just a few months after the March 2005 disaster.”

The HSS report stated that “BP did not ensure its management and workforce understood what was expected of them regarding process safety; emphasizing personal safety over process safety.”

Both reports cited BP’s lack of Safety Culture Leadership as a major factor: employees were not empowered, adequate resources for Safety were not provided and managers did not consider process Safety in decision-making. The result was a culture where “bad news” (incidents and injuries) was not welcomed (and so underreported) and where procedural non-compliance was encouraged.

Even BP’s internal report identified cultural issues: “Over the years, the working environment had eroded to one characterized by resistance to change, and lacking of trust, motivation, and a sense of purpose. Coupled with unclear expectations around supervisory and management behaviors this meant that rules were not consistently followed, rigor was lacking and individuals felt disempowered from suggesting or initiating improvements.”

It ‘s far to early to say if BP’s culture was a major factor in the current Gulf crisis. From all reports, BP under current CEO Tony Hayward (who replaced Lord Browne in the wake of the Texas City explosion) has taken steps toward improving their Safety Culture.

Time will tell, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that failure to address cultural issues can have to catastrophic consequences. The lesson from Texas City is that leaders ignore culture at their peril…and their employees pay the ultimate cost for that ignorance.

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