October 2014: Improve Refinery Safety Performance

An article entitled “Can Oil Refineries Fix Stupid? – Improve refinery safety performance by establishing the proper leadership culture” by Steve Pagani that appeared in the e-newsletter “RefinerLink” on 9/7/14 (http://www.refinerlink.com/blog/Can_Oil_Refineries_Fix_Stupid) really struck a chord with me.  And of course what Pagani talks about applies to any chemical plant as much as to a refinery.  Whenever there is an accident at a plant it frequently seems to be because someone did something that he/she was trained NOT to do.  As much as companies train in safety best practices and everyone in the plant really knows better, invariably accidents happen.  However in a chemical plant or refinery, “accidents” unfortunately can have very grave results.  Therefore, I felt that it was important to share this article just as a reminder….again!  C>


It’s a problem that has plagued refineries and chemical plants for as long as they’ve existed. There will always be people that do things when they obviously should know better. These people take actions that are against numerous policies and procedures and put themselves at risk.   So can we prevent these types of incidents from occurring? Can you fix stupid? I’m here to tell you that these people may not be stupid to begin with. Because the question should be, “WHY did they behave in a stupid manner?” And the answer to that answer may surprise you.

“We were behind schedule and couldn’t afford to stop work yet again” – In many instances the worker was trying to do what he or she thought was best for the company. And in cases where time is an obvious factor stupid doesn’t seem as stupid. It’s the job of supervision to not only avoid talking about time constraints but to reinforce that safety and quality of work is the priority and not the schedule. Saying nothing is not enough.

“I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do” – Having clear procedures and standards is extremely important in preventing injuries and so is training. Putting people in spots where they are not qualified for the job puts them in a tough spot. In many cases they will try to stretch themselves and get the job done which sacrifices safety.

“My supervisor said to do the job a certain way but I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it” – One of the most important responsibilities of a supervisor is not to send mixed messages. If you’ve set a certain set of expectations make sure you enforce them. If you’ve said it’s important to follow procedures don’t look the other way when they’re clearly not being used. Not holding others accountable to your expectations basically is the equivalent of not having any expectations.

“I’ve seen other people do the same thing and nothing has happened” – The level of risk tolerance at a site is something that’s part of a culture. Intervention is required in instances of high risk tolerance before someone gets hurt. The only way to make that happen is through field presence by supervisors. Leadership needs to be in the field reinforcing the safety mindset and setting the example by not accepting high risk vulnerabilities either.

So in many instances the assessment of “stupidity” being the root cause of an injury is accurate. Yet the party responsible for the stupidity isn’t always accurately identified.  If a site expects strict adherence to safety standards and low risk tolerance, a lot of time and effort needs to be invested in creating that type of culture. This effort needs to be established by leaders. Expecting safe behavior without attempting to create a culture where that is valued is… well, stupid.


Congratulations to our Vice President, Carol Wenom, on being named to Houston Business Journal’s “Who’s Who in Energy” for 2014! This is Carol’s third year on the list! (HBJ Who’s Who In Energy)

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