Seeing the unseen: Transforming safety by improving hazard sensitivity


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Lukasz Abramowicz, Moid Mohammed, Andy Thain, and Richard Ward for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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Safety analytics derived from virtual-reality data can quantify workers’ ability to sense physical hazards and be used to achieve a safer workplace and generative safety culture.

In recent years, companies in high-hazard industries have made great strides in responding to safety hazards. The trouble is, these hazards seldom come to light unless an incident occurs. However, new technologies are now giving companies a reliable way to measure employees’ ability to detect potential hazards in their working environment. This enables organizations to design interactive programs to improve their safety performance and culture.

Consider a hissing valve emitting steam, a missing handrail on a high platform, or a pool of black oil on a white-tiled floor. Such hazards pose a threat, but they are plain to see, and the danger they represent is obvious. They are not the problem.

Think instead about a sharp metal edge at head height just behind you, a pressure gauge tipping past the operating limit, or an isolation valve closed but not locked, with a bar handle at kick height. These hazards could be lethal, and if your people don’t see them or recognize the danger they pose, that is the problem.

In a recent visit to an offshore oil rig, we spotted a sign warning employees about high noise levels from machinery temporarily sited in a quiet area. The trouble was, the sign was so close to the machinery that anyone able to read it would already be at risk of hearing impairment. Ironically, the presence of the warning sign didn’t reduce the hazard but magnified it.

In our work supporting companies with their large-scale safety transformations, we’ve found that the biggest obstacles to maintaining a consistently safe workplace are the employees’ ability to see and predict hazards and the leaders’ under-standing of that ability. The good news is that both obstacles can be tackled with the aid of new tech-based approaches.

Improving hazard awareness

Oil and gas companies have made strenuous efforts to improve safety performance in recent years. Between 2014 and 2017, personal safety in the industry improved by 15 percent per year, and process safety improved by 7 percent. 1 More recently, though, personal safety showed no improvement, and process safety declined in the period from 2017 to 2018.

Many companies refer to a “safety staircase,” like the one illustrated in Exhibit 1, to describe the cultural changes they are pursuing to improve their safety performance. However, leaders often struggle to categorize their organizations accurately. A company that considers itself proactive, for instance, may find that field visits and team interviews uncover lingering signs of a calculative approach—such as an awareness among leaders of how many safety observations have been conducted compared with targets but a failure to dig into the issues revealed by these observations.

Such signs suggest that the company would need to make major changes if it were to move to a generative culture, in which safety observations are quickly used to make safe working easier through modifications in workers’ behaviors and the streamlining of procedures.

Through our work with companies seeking to climb up the safety staircase, we’ve found that leaders need to set the right tone and expectations for teams’ safety behaviors, create an environment that motivates people to look for and speak up about hazards, and provide systems for acting promptly when a hazard is identified. But powerful as these leadership actions can be, their effectiveness ultimately depends on the individual employee’s ability to see hazards and recognize them as such. This ability varies considerably from one individual, site, or company to another; it may not be well understood in the organization; and it is likely to show considerable scope for improvement.

One oil and gas operating company had experienced several safety incidents involving dropped objects at one of its sites. When leaders visited other sites, they discovered that field teams and supervisors were still overlooking similar types of hazards, and as a result, no effort was being made to control them. Instead, the company’s safety-awareness program focused on energy isolation and improving compliance with personal protective equipment. Although these topics were important, they didn’t represent the most immediate risk to employees’ safety.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Lukasz Abramowicz is a partner in McKinsey’s Qatar office, where Moid Mohammed is an associate partner; Andy Thain is a partner in the Singapore office; and Richard Ward is an associate partner in the Boston office.



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