Improving occupational health and safety in a petrochemical environment through culture change
Farmer, Ruan Alexander
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In spite of the vast technological progress and improvement in the standard of management systems within hazardous industries around the world, occupational health and safety incidents and fatalities continue to devastate thousands of lives each year. Throughout the last decade, significant improvement has been achieved in the reduction of health and safety incident rates across the South African petrochemical environment. However, a persistent roller-coaster fatality rate still prevails. Recent studies have shown that in order to conquer the relentless battle in realizing sustainable world-class health and safety performance, an organisation has to move beyond the traditional compliance orientated safety focus towards an interdependent safety culture in which safety is ubiquitous and embedded in the hearts of all employees. The root causes of more and more occupational health and safety incidents are no longer as a result of mechanical or systems failure, but instead originate from the attitude, values and beliefs of management and employees with regard to the significance of safety, also known as the safety culture. This has ignited a rising interest in the concept of safety culture among organisations because of the positive impact on occupational health and safety in reducing the potential for fatalities, injuries and workplace incidents. Hence the primary objective of this study is to determine the maturity of the current safety culture in the South African petrochemical environment by identifying particular culture shortfalls which could lead to hesitant progress towards the desired interdependent state. In order to reach this objective, three secondary objectives have also been set. Firstly, an understanding of the concept of organisational culture and safety culture is crucial. In simple terms, organisational culture can be described as the shared values, assumptions and beliefs in an organisation that ultimately direct employee behaviour. Organisational culture is characterised by three layers known as artefacts, espoused values and basic assumptions. These layers represent the manifestation of the organisational culture and vary in terms of outward visibility and resistance to change. Understanding and analysing these layers provide the reasons why employees behave in certain ways. Safety culture is a subset of organisational culture; in other words, it is the manifestation of the organisation?s attitude, values and commitment in regard to the importance of health and safety. Companies which have developed effective safety cultures have demonstrated unequivocal results in closing the elusive health and safety performance gap. Secondly, the fundamental components conducive of an effective safety culture were explored. These components include management and employee commitment to health and safety, accountability and involvement, communication and trust, risk awareness and compliance, competency and learning and finally recognition. Most of the components can be assigned to the artefact level or a combination of the level of artefacts and espoused values with only a small number more appropriately associated with the level of basic assumptions. The effectiveness within each of these areas ultimately dictates the nature of the safety culture and the success in preventing health and safety incidents. The focus of the last secondary objective was to determine the development stages leading to an effective safety culture known as an interdependent safety culture. Each of these stages represents the degree of maturity of the attitudes and commitment of management and employees in relation to the ongoing health and safety improvement in the organisation. The DuPont model suggests that in a reactive safety culture, safety is merely a natural instinct with no real perceived value for the individual or organisation. Moving towards a dependent safety culture, employees start to value safety but only so they do not get caught. The next stage called an independent safety culture is characterised by self preservation. In this stage, the mindset of employees changed towards an attitude of ?I do things safe so I do not get hurt?. In the final stage known as interdependent safety culture, employees embrace safety as a personal virtue not only for their own safety but also in contribution to the safety of their peers. In such a culture it is employees? desire to do things safely so that no-one gets hurt. An empirical study was conducted through a quantitative research approach in the form of a safety climate questionnaire. The target population consisted of first-line managers and non-managerial personnel within the production; maintenance; laboratory; technical, and the safety, health and environment departments in a petrochemical organisation. In light of the results emanating from the empirical study it can be concluded that an overall positive perception was observed towards the selected safety culture components indicative through the mean response scores above the neutral scale of 3. Older and more experienced employees demonstrated a more positive response to the safety compared to younger employees. However, several distinctive safety culture shortcomings were also identified. In the current safety culture, health and safety is sometimes overlooked due to productivity or cost implications. Employees tend to withhold safety related information to themselves as a culture of guilt prevails and mere compliance to safety standards is considered adequate. Solutions to health and safety problems are most of a short-term nature and do not address the root cause. It therefore provides evidence that the organisation under evaluation has not yet reached the desired safety culture maturity stage of interdependence. Although the study population is limited to a single organisation, the shortfalls identified could relate to the larger petrochemical environment and thus could explain the recent fluctuating health and safety performance. This assumption, however, can only be validated through further research within a much greater sample size inclusive of more than one organisation in the petrochemical environment. It is thus clear that the existing safety culture within the petrochemical organisation could lead to potential health and safety incidents if the shortcomings are not appropriately addressed.
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