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The human factor: safety as a people business

Release date:
22 March 2018
How do people interact with their working environment? And how can a business set up its systems and procedures to support staff in critical tasks and minimize human error? BP's head of safety Bob Fryar reflects on the importance of human performance - and why good leadership is vital

How would you describe BP’s safety culture today?

Culturally, we have seen people becoming increasingly more comfortable in speaking up, stopping the job if necessary. Also, the value and importance of operations have been elevated inside BP. People appreciate that when you get operations right, you get safety right and vice versa. And ultimately, it’s very clear that our people see safety as a core value and our number one priority. That’s not new - we made it one of our five values to reflect and reinforce that.


How has the safety and operational risk (S&OR) team helped to shape that culture?

We have spent time working with businesses to shape how the leaders think and how they respond to incidents. When something happens, how do our leaders react to bad news? That helps to set the culture of the organization. When leaders treat incidents as an opportunity to learn and strengthen our operations, people respond with greater reporting.


Safety leadership principles have recently been introduced as a guide to the behaviours we expect our leaders to demonstrate. One of these says that we believe that our safety actions are most effective when we genuinely care about each other.

What do you see as having the next big impact on safety in BP?

There is no one silver bullet for safety improvement. However, I believe learning and human performance will continue to make a positive impact. To help facilitate better learning, we rolled out a new incident reporting tool called IRIS last year. We wanted a tool where people can report incidents and also quickly and easily share or find lessons learned with the touch of a button. I’m looking at it all the time to see how teams are reporting incidents and the themes that are emerging. It is a very powerful tool with incredible potential to provide insights into our safety performance data.

You talked about human performance, can you explain a bit more about this?

Human performance is about understanding how people interact with their working environment. We recognize that people make mistakes, and we look at things like the systems and the procedures they have to follow and ask if we have done all we can to set our people up for success. For example, is the correct button to press sufficiently clear versus all the others on a display?

And, we ask ourselves, how can we help support our people when they are performing critical tasks?

We could look to minimize the human aspect of our tasks but this isn’t always possible, so we review how people interface with the equipment and systems around them. We examine things like stress and fatigue, as well as the quality of the systems and procedures that people have to follow.

When you come at things from a human performance perspective, you can pick up on things that you might not otherwise have seen, and that gives you the chance to do something that will help people to get it right, more of the time.

That sounds like a huge undertaking, where does it start?

Well, you have to make it practical. I’ll give you a great example - our Task Improvement Process, which some businesses have begun to use. This is a tool that helps teams to find the critical points in a certain task that, if done wrong, could result in a major incident.


For example, it could mean looking at a procedure that involves 100 steps and simplifying it by saying: “Which of these 100 steps, if you got them wrong, could result in an incident?” And: “How can we make that mistake less likely?”


However, it is so much more than that as it also includes how we investigate contributory factors in incidents where human error occurs, ergonomics of equipment, displays and signs, procedures etc - anywhere where our people use a system or process.


What does human performance mean for personal accountability and what’s the role of leadership in this?

When you have an accident, human performance is helping leaders to better understand the problem without focusing on the ‘who’ - who is at fault? Instead, it’s about understanding how and why things go wrong. We have actually gone back to see what proportion of the time people purposefully took shortcuts or knowingly did something wrong.


And, in fact, it is very small. Where that has happened, then, of course, we must hold those people to account. But, more often, the system or the process has let them down or could have done more to prevent their mistake from becoming an accident.


We want all of our people to go home safely, always. So we have to ask ourselves what we are doing as leaders to enable our people, from platforms to pumps, to be successful more of the time. 


As the leader responsible for safety, those are the questions I ask myself regularly and expect others to do so as well. It is an honour to play a leadership role in this area to help make a difference.

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