Blog: Attitudes Support the Culture of Safety

By Susanne Retka Schill | July 25, 2016

Many ethanol producers I’ve talked to take pride in their safety records. In EPM articles on the subject in past years, we talked about some of the safety requirements plants face and discussed some of the most critical areas for safety concerns in the ethanol plant, along with the challenge of dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s in being OSHA compliant. Every time, somebody will comment that most important thing is to create a culture of safety.

Knowing that, I found a public radio piece on oil-rig safety fascinating. It tells the story of one effort to turn around a culture of tough-guy self-reliance and stoniness in the face of hazards. “How learning to be vulnerable can make life safer” started out with an anecdote from a retired worker who started on rigs in the Gulf when he was just 15. It wasn’t unusual for someone to die on a rig, he said, recounting one particularly horrific accident that killed a man. “They got 15 minutes to mourn after watching their friend and colleague die, but that was it,” the story says.

It goes on to tell of the effort launched 20 years ago when work began to build one of the first deep-water rigs. A Shell executive knew changes needed to be made to operate the behemoth rig safely. A leadership consultant suggested that “management problems had more to do with interior struggles than with the kinds of things typically taught in business schools.” The approach boils down to teaching tough-guys, raised to be intolerant of weakness, to open up, to share feelings, to show they care, to be vulnerable.

It’s a great story that tells how the approach healed a difficult relationship between the executive and his son and, while resisted by many of the 100s of oil-rig workers put through the program, it helped change the company culture. “As the men became more open with their feelings, other communication was starting to flow more freely. ‘Part of safety in an environment like that is being able to admit mistakes and being open to learning – to say I need help, I can’t life this thing by myself, I’m not sure how to read this meter. That alone is about being vulnerable.’”  

The program ultimately contributed to an 84 percent decline in Shell’s accident rate companywide, the story says, with the company efficiency and reliability performance during the same period exceeding the industry’s previous benchmark.

The story illustrates an aspect of human nature, how it impacts a work environment, an approach to turning it around, and how it benefits the business. And, it’s just a great article to read.

A story like this one on changing the oil-rig culture serves as a nice contrast to what I’ve observed in the ethanol industry.  While it may occur at times, I’ve never gotten the impression that the ethanol industry struggles with that sort of a tough-guy mentality getting in the way of operating safe and well-run plants. Indeed, the people I’ve met in the industry strike me as being supportive, positive and, dare I say, nurturing people.

These work environments don’t just happen, though, it requires a lot of wise people making careful decisions on who they hire, what values they stress and how they measure success. It’s a great thing that the ethanol industry includes a solid safety record as one measure of a plant’s success.