Oil spill shows why safety matters in corporations

29 Jun 2010 - 17:15


Professor PetersenProfessor Petersen

With the recent focus on the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the issues of risk management and safety within business operations are again raised as the key priorities in how companies should conduct their business.

It is interesting to note that in almost all the articles published in the press on the BP disaster, very little focus has been placed on the safety aspects associated with the explosion, but rather a major emphasis on the environmental impacts thereof. It is, of course an environmental catastrophe, but so is the seriousness of the death of 11 employees.

Research has been conducted to understand how to manage safety pro-actively, and companies and businesses have applied different models of risk management and a variety of approaches towards managing safety - some more successful than others.

The question however, is how companies or businesses can ensure sustainable safety in operational environments where technical or other risks are high?

It asks for exceptional leadership - a leadership that promotes a culture of caring and discipline, and which values safety as a way to do business.

This type of leadership needs to permeate through each level of the organisation - always reminding employees that "short-cuts" are unacceptable and will lead to severe disciplinary consequences.

It is obvious that this type of leadership needs to be integrated and supported by a robust risk management framework, solid technical systems and standards and an employee-owned value system.

In the South African context, companies such as Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Sasol, Murray & Roberts, Group Five and various others have shown a high commitment towards managing safety, but there is certainly room for improvement.

An ever-increasing regulatory environment has further added towards a different behaviour and a more meticulous focus on safety and risk in companies.

One would also expect a tougher stance from the investor community - where environmental, safety and social risks will have to be closely scrutinised by analysts and fund managers before investment decisions are made.

If culture, behaviour and the correct mindset towards safety are so important to manage safety in the workplace, do universities prepare their graduates appropriately with respect to the understanding and behaviour towards safety?

How do universities engage with this critical aspect in their curricula? It would make sense that if graduates enter companies with the correct mindset and appreciation towards safety, the leadership of the company would find it easier to align the company's objectives (especially with respect to safety) to those of the incoming graduates - this could be a key ingredient towards sustainable safety.

In the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Cape Town, a two-pronged approach is followed to expose students to the critical aspect of safety.

Firstly, continuous communication and visible leadership form the basis of the operational management of the faculty. The argument is that you cannot teach safety if you do not practice it yourself - you need to set an example. Therefore, academic staff, workshop and laboratory staff apply a "zero-harm" approach in executing their daily tasks.

The second emphasis is on the curriculum: content on safety is taught in an integrated manner in the disciplines of engineering and the built environment.

This is supplemented by a Faculty Safety Week, where experienced engineers and built environment professionals from industry and the private sector share real-world case studies with staff and students.

This does not only contribute in raising the profile of safety among students and staff, but also assisting in developing a climate of caring among staff and students in the faculty - in doing so, safety becomes everyone's responsibility.

Universities have always provided a good technical foundation of safety aspects within technical and professional disciplines, but what is required now is to create an added positive and appreciative mindset, so that the value of the behaviour to safety becomes paramount.

It is unfortunate that an event such as the BP disaster should challenge the contribution all roleplayers must make to ensure that sustainable safety in companies is achieved.

Professor Francis Petersen
Dean: Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment
Univeristy of Cape Town

Published on Business Report website 28 June 2010.