Steve Highley has over 18 years industrial experience of production and safety management in major hazard chemicals manufacturing at a site that achieved year or year improvements in process safety indicators and 7 years with no lost time accidents. This firmly established his view that successful safety management requires competent safety leadership and as much employee engagement as you can muster. From 2003 to 2010 he worked as a major hazard risk management consultant. His primary areas of work with Hastam have been in consultancy and training services. In July 2016 Steve was appointed Technical Director.
As part of our meet the Expert series he agreed to answer some questions on his time in the field of Health and Safety
Where do you fit into the Hastam team?
When Mike Vyvyan invited me to join Hastam’s team of associates, the opportunity to work with and learn from Richard Booth, Tony Boyle and Andrew Hale made saying yes a very easy decision.
I am now Hastam’s Technical Director, effectively Liz Shuttleworth’s right hand man and fortunate to be working with a great team of highly experienced consultants.
My background in the high hazard process industries enables me to provide consultancy and training support for all organisations where getting health and safety right requires a blend of engineering and management skills.
Who has been your biggest influencer?
It’s impossible for me to pick out one biggest influencer – there have been many in relation to health and safety. The first was Cyril Bell, H&S manager at my first place of work as a graduate chemical engineer. Cyril had been one of the plant managers at Flixborough in 1974. His simple message – always take safety seriously.
From Plant Manager Ron Kirkby I learned the vital importance of spending time out on the plant, most importantly talking with everyone. Group process safety advisor Kevin Dixon-Jackson deepened my understanding of process safety when he worked with me on secondment to gain production experience. Department head Bill Ritter taught me the most about leadership, the need to combine clear direction and expectations with just enough practical support. Also that great all round performance needs mutual support and collaboration from a great team. Ron, Kevin and Bill were also all advocates of taking work seriously whilst laughing as much as possible. There are many other work colleagues I don’t have the space here to mention and thank.
Academically, the writings Trevor Kletz first turned me on to the importance of human factors and understanding human error. This understanding has been deepened by James Reason’s books and more recently those of Sidney Dekker. I have also benefited greatly from Andrew Hopkin’s sociological insights into how organisations can go wrong leading to major accidents.
Perhaps more important than all of the above has been the practical influence of the many supervisors, chemical operators and engineering technicians who I have had the privilege to work with and learn from.
What is the most memorable piece of work you have ever been involved in?
At about 6am on Saturday 4th January 1992 a runaway reaction discharged via a pressure relief bursting disc about four tonnes of reaction mixture that was toxic on skin contact. Much of this material rained out on an area of the site undergoing an over £200 million investment in new facilities. I was called out to do the dispersion calculations to estimate how far this material may have reached off site, vital information for the emergency response – who to warn and where to sample, test and clean. Whilst this event itself was over in minutes, the demands of managing the aftermath were considerable and highly stressful for all concerned. This event revealed that our procedures for emergency response and business continuity looked good on paper but were inadequate in practice.
The site response was to overhaul our emergency response plans, training and testing arrangements. This included adopting the approaches to training developed following Piper Alpha – real time simulation emergency control rooms. This change proved its worth when some years later a major fire in the ventilation system of a production building was brought under control and all aspects of the emergency managed effectively.
Three years after the runaway reaction accident, I experienced a rather different baptism of fire when promoted to Plant Manager for a special reactions facility. These included fully automated phosgenation and hydrogenation plants, two of the most serious hazards on the site. My prior experience was fully hands on manual plant! My challenge was to successfully and safely produce the last four batches of a new product being launched that year. All but one of the previous nine batches had failed. It was a case of sort this out and you can keep your job!
The solution? See my last comment under biggest influences. By combining the practical insights of the production teams and collaborating with our engineers we were able to identify the key problems and find short term solutions for them. These were converted in to permanent automated solutions for future production campaigns, some of which also enhanced safety. All four batches were successfully and safely produced.
What is the one piece of advice that has stuck with you through your career?
We each have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that ratio. Or as Stephen Covey’s fifth habit puts it, ‘seek first to understand, then be understood’. This is perhaps most important for actively managing and leading health and safety.
Be willing to disagree and work through the reasons for disagreement. Getting safety right is not, or rather too often is but should not be, a matter of majority voting, or everyone being happy about a decision, or who has the most organisational power. It is about understanding and using to the best of our collective ability, the factual evidence we have, together with the engineering, human and organisational principles relevant to solving each safety problem. This is what Hastam consultants aim to do in all of our work.
If there anything you have change your mind on over on the years?
Not so much changed mind, but progressive learning. Perhaps the most important factors are:
Managing human factors effectively is vital and this is as important for the activities of managing and leading health and safety, as it is for ensuring risk reduction measures are effective and reliable.
The absence of negatives (accidents, particularly LTIs) is clearly essential but does not prove a positive – that you are good at managing safety. Major accidents in the process industries have shown how misleading LTI performance data can be. This is just as true for the occupational health and safety hazards with the greatest potential for harm.
It is easy to persuade yourself, or be persuaded by others, to invest in a major safety culture projects. For many organisations that chose to do this, the same level of investment in direct improvements to risk controls and improving safety management skills would almost certainly result in a better return on investment and would improve safety culture as a spin-off benefit.
Learning from our own experience is vital, but there are some experiences that are best avoided. Being open to and willing to learn from others is essential if we are to get better at preventing serious accidents.
Summarise what you have learnt during your time in Health and Safety
Richard Booth’s summary of the research on safety culture in the nuclear industry set out in the ACSNI Human Factors Study Group third report rings true for me. Great safety correlates with places where people like going to work. I’ve achieved the most when working with people who enjoy working together, both in the process industry and more recently as a safety consultant and trainer.
Why? Great safety needs open communication about problems, collaborative and creative problem solving, willingness to help everyone be the best they can be, and celebration of everyone’s successes. It is fairly obvious that this is far more likely in places where people like going to work and enjoy working with each other.