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I had some spare time (don’t tell my boss) so I was reading up on causes of the Buncefield explosion  and fire  not pleasant reading. The report stated that the Judge, the Hon Mr. Justice Calvert-Smith, commented that cost cutting per se was not put forward as a major feature of the prosecution case, but the failings had more to do with slackness, inefficiency and a more-or-less complacent approach to matters of safety. The report also stated that there was a culture “where keeping the process operating was the primary focus and process safety did not get the attention, resources or priority that it required.”

Complacent in matters of safety:  wow, and we do become complacent in all manner of activities that we participate in. Think back to when you were learning to driving a car. Everything was new, you paid attention to everything, a very confusing environment. I remember being amazed that people drove in excess of 120 KM in a 100 KM zone, weaving in and out of heavy traffic. I really paid attention to everything going on around me. Yet today I can get into a car, hold a conversation, and not worry about the speed of the traffic, and while I think I am paying close attention, to be truthful I am a little complacent and do not have that extra level of vigilance in everyday driving. 

Forensic Magazine says in its article “Don’t become complacent about safety”    that “It’s human nature to become complacent and relaxed in a familiar and comfortable setting. Things become routine and you are able to navigate most of the day on autopilot.” Just like my driving. 

In the article they talk about reviewing the activities in which you participate by “looking at all with the eyes of a child, with unprejudiced honesty of all you see. Reevaluate the safety equipment and procedures in your lab and make sure you are not becoming complacent about safety.” Definitely an idea that can be used outside a lab environment.

Westfield Insurance also has some interesting things to say about complacency

One telling paragraph “Employees begin to get in a hurry and take shortcuts on the job. One employee sees a co-worker taking a shortcut and figures, "If he can do it, why can't I?". They start to become more focused on production and getting the job done than getting it done safely. Managers begin to be satisfied with mediocre safety performance. They don’t bother to correct unsafe behaviors. Workers become convinced that management is not concerned about safety and they begin to think they are not responsible for their own safety. Over time, the emphasis on safe behaviors erodes. We have become complacent.”

They also have a series of suggestions for both employees and supervisors. Understanding each task, what they will be doing, the risks involved, what could go wrong. Encourage employees to examine the substances, equipment, procedures, and situations that are part of their job and look for possible hazards, to report any and all unsafe conditions no matter how minor they might seem at the time, establish & participate in safety meetings.

Amongst the suggestions for manager the ones I really liked were a) to integrate all aspects of safety into management planning, b) demonstrate a commitment to safety, and c) review reports of near misses and injuries and follow up on the reports to ensure that appropriate actions are taken to eliminate the causes of incidents.

In general I believe the chemical industry does a very good job regarding safety. But we are all human and mistakes can and do happen. Unfortunately in the chemical industry a mistake can have very serious consequences.

So, how are you doing in battling complacency? Have you reviewed your processes “with the eyes of a child”? Do you have processes and systems in place to support both the employees and the managers in collecting and processing safety information?

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