The Zen of Safety Leadership

If you don't want others to be complacent, you have to be ever watchful yourself. Root out "It's just a cost of doing business" thinking.

ANIL Mathur is the CEO of Alaska Tanker Corporation. He leads according to Lao Tsu's precept, "Things that are not growing are dying." Consistent with this, Anil, an incisive thinker and articulate, no-nonsense communicator, directs safety with strong expectations of watchful and continuous improvement.

Alaska Tanker Company (ATC) operates vessels that transport crude oil from the Alaska pipeline to oil terminals in the lower 48 states. The company's shipboard work has many risks: exposure to the environment (Arctic winters, high winds, rain), turning valves, traversing vertical ladders, vibration, listing and rolling, crossing slippery decks, using heavy tools, long hours, interrupted sleep patterns, and more. It is not work for the faint-hearted.

But the company does get sterling results. As of July 2007, ATC completed 11 million work hours without a lost time injury; the last lost-time injury was in December 2001. In a letter congratulating his team, Anil wrote, "As far as I can tell, no other tanker company in the world currently matches, or has ever matched this record. And with a Restricted Work Injury rate of zero and a Total Recordable Injury rate of 0.4, ATC's personal safety record is amongst the best in any industrial setting in the world."

How did they achieve these results? Admittedly, Anil cautions there is no simplistic formula other companies can merely mimic--that success comes only from customizing methods to an organization's specific culture and conditions. But there are principles Anil employs you can also adapt to considerably boost your safety leadership and performance. (Truth in writing time: ATC has been a client of our MoveSMART® system for numerous years.)

1. Expect your managers to actively lead Safety. Line management accountability is paramount. There have been times, after safety lapses aboard ATC ships, when the ship captain is subsequently told to come to ATC headquarters. Anil himself conducts these interviews, making it clear ATC brooks no excuses for less-than-safe performance. Then the captain formulates a measurable performance plan for improvement. It is checked and followed up throughout the ATC tanker fleet.

2. See each task from a fresh perspective. Anil says, "Our Job Hazard Analysis process discards the notion of 'routine' jobs. We approach every upcoming task as if it could injure us, for the simple reason that is indeed what can happen."

Anil contends self-congratulatory resting on laurels goes against continuous improvement. In other words, "very good" is the enemy of "great." In line with this, Anil writes that 11 million working hours and more than five years without an LTI means ATC is "off to a good start."

Granted, it takes energy to not take anything for granted. So if you don't want others to be complacent, you have to be ever watchful yourself. Root out "It's just a cost of doing business" thinking.

Anil emphasizes--and expects everyone to do the same--having a "one day at a time, one job at a time" approach to uncovering and then minimizing risks.

3. Catch everything early. The best leaders develop systems for searching out the molehills, rather than waiting for these to come to them. Develop a true and active near-miss reporting system. Good leaders deal with molehills rather than mountains.
In ATC, ship officers and employees conduct Advanced Safety Audits. And their senior leadership team is not office bound: each person spends time on ship rides.

4. Train everyone relentlessly. ATC incorporates rigorous training, in which Anil himself participates. The company has weeklong training sessions where shipboard and shore staff meet together, focusing on shared understanding of problems and mutual development of practical solutions.

5. Default toward action; don't stop at analysis. Anil sets a culture where everyone first develops "a deep and detailed understanding of our tasks and their underlying hazards." But the bottom line is being relentless in pursuing "flawless operations." Anil writes, "We increasingly use the insights of our entire work force in diagnosing problems and implementing solutions in a collaborative team environment."

Regrettably, all of us can't work for a CEO who actively values safety to the point that he might also be called the Chief Safety Officer, one who takes time from his busy schedule to present at Safety conferences to spread his thoughts and passion.

But it's reassuring to know high-level results can be accomplished in even a highly risky industry; Anil believes anyone with the right commitment can accomplish similar things, and that, by adapting the principles of top-level safety leadership, you can transform culture and performance. You might let your senior managers know--pass it on.

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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