The mighty have fallen

Dave Rebbitt
By now, you have certainly heard, the unthinkable has happened. In July, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the United States added DuPont to the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP).

This announcement came after an investigation into the fatalities that occurred at a DuPont site in LaPorte, Texas, in November 2014. Four workers were asphyxiated in a release of methyl mercaptan. In adding DuPont to the SVEP, OSHA noted “the very serious hazards we uncovered at this facility are evidence of a failed safety program.”

The SVEP is according to OSHA “intended to focus enforcement efforts on recalcitrant employers who demonstrate indifference to the health and safety of their employees through willful, repeated or failure-to-abate violations relating to significant hazards.”
Companies in the SVEP remain in it until they no longer receive OSHA citations and three years after the resolution of SVEP inspection citation items.

For those who have been in the safety game a long time, DuPont was often held up as the ideal — the embodiment of “world class” safety, a platitude so overused these days that it has become meaningless. DuPont was so successful in safety that they set up a separate division to sell their program and knowledge. DuPont STOP training and behaviour based programs have become widely known. Their safety consulting division, ironically named Sustainable Solutions, counts many large and successful companies as it clients. DuPont Sustainable Solutions operates in over 100 countries and generated 3.9 billion in revenue for DuPont in 2014 according to its annual report.

DuPont was amongst the first companies to turn safety into a product and offer off the shelf solutions to companies looking for ways to improve. The DuPont Sustainable Solutions website is full of case studies and praise for reducing injuries and fatalities at various companies using the products and expertise of DuPont. It speaks of companies choosing to work with DuPont because of its “World class safety performance.” It is unclear if that is really true these days. However, despite recent events revenue seems to remain strong for DuPont in the world of safety consulting.

The interesting question is how the icon of the safety industry came to be on the OSHA severe violators list. DuPont always had good safety systems and was very big on accountability in terms of holding their directors, managers, and supervisors accountable for incidents that occurred in the workplace.

Like any great safety system, DuPont’s must evolve to serve the needs of the company. Keeping aligned with company vision and focus is not an easy thing and as time passes errors creep into the system and things naturally get out of alignment. Even a company that sells safety excellence globally is not immune to people who look for the faster, easier or cheaper way to do things. If those who object to this drift are marginalized, it simply continues.

A case in point, and a sure warning sign, occurred in 1999 for DuPont. They agreed to pay more than US$70,000 to OSHA to settle charges that they failed to report over 100 injuries and illnesses at their Seaford, Delaware, facility. Considering the safety pedestal on which DuPont sits that comes as a shock. It certainly should have told the senior management that something was seriously amiss.

In January 2010 a worker was fatally exposed to phosgene from a ruptured hose in DuPont’s Belle, W. Va. plant. OSHA cited DuPont at that time for process safety infractions in July and discovered other chemical releases that had occurred.

In May 2011 OSHA cited DuPont’s Yerkes Plant in Buffalo, N.Y., and a contractor, for a combined total of 17 serious violations of workplace safety standards following a fatal explosion at the plant in November 2010.

What happened?
First, I would not say that DuPont has a bad safety system. While it does not seem to be working all that well, anyone will gladly tell you that execution in the hardest part of any system. The best systems can fail if they are not effectively implemented. No one would believe that DuPont is simply turning a blind eye. In truth, I have yet to meet any manager that thinks needlessly putting people at risk is acceptable.

As they rightly point out, DuPont is not the worst employer out there and certainly does not have the worst record. In 2013, DuPont did receive the Robert W. Campbell Award from the National Safety Council. In terms of days lost to work injuries DuPont is amongst the best in their industry; hence their claims of excellence. Of course none of those other companies rated better than DuPont are selling their program worldwide.

DuPont has been selling its safety program as a product for many years. It does work to a certain extent. If the company is aligned with the systems and the execution is done well there may be improvements in performance. Virtually everyone in safety is familiar with the behavioural approach of DuPont’s STOP systems or Safestart. They have been around for many years.

An Aug. 20 article in the National Journal contained some telling anecdotes. One was an example of how pencils were banned a DuPont because they could roll onto the floor and cause someone to trip. A serious injury from such an event is unlikely but this harkens back to the belief that stopping smaller incidents from happening prevents serious ones — a theory that has been thoroughly debunked despite the pyramids that seem so popular in safety circles.

The second anecdote was even more telling. An employee working on a roof at home failed to take proper safety precautions and was injured. He was then fired for engaging in unsafe behaviours. Sounds a bit extreme and, like the previous example, very rule and hazard focussed.

Focus, alignment and evolution
In written testimony last year to a joint meeting of two U.S. Senate committees, the Chemical Safety Board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso summed it up well: "If it can happen at DuPont, I would submit it can happen anywhere." That is the real lesson to be learned here.

The problems that beset DuPont are threefold and affect every company. First is the basic belief system upon which many safety programs are founded, is simply not correct. The belief that by focussing on preventing near misses and near hits we can prevent serious incidents is simply not true at all. The pyramid brought about by HW Heinrich and later modified by Bird and Germain were meant to represent a concept and relationship. The claim that preventing near misses reduces the number of incidents or their severity has faded over time but it is still deeply rooted in the safety profession.

This leads to a focus on rules and non-compliance. It fosters rising penalties and zero tolerance. The result is a search for blame instead of cause. Corrective actions are proposed that impact people instead of systems.

Second is the fixation on measuring things that are easily seen and measured. The National Journal article states that “DuPont officials insist company safety must be judged by the number of productive work days lost to injury.” Measuring lost time rates, or injury rates, is clearly not an indication of how safe a company may be in the future. The problem is that we do not have anything else that is easily measurable.

There are other things we can measure such as activities that are proactive in nature to ensure that what is supposed to be done (preventative maintenance, inspections and audits) is actually being done. We must answer questions: Is your safety system actually being used and effective? Is it aligned with what senior management expects?

Third, in order to improve, things must evolve. This is at the core of a sustainable safety system. Tried and true methods reach the limit of their effectiveness and even lose effectiveness as we blindly believe they will always work in a dynamic workplace environment. DuPont has been selling the same safety approaches for years. Their effectiveness is limited by several factors including their relevance. Something that does not evolve is destined to fail. The Kodak Company sticking with film when others embraced digital imaging comes to mind.

Time will tell if DuPont can turn their fortunes around. The lesson is that even the best can be blind to the impeding failure and rot in their safety systems. It certainly can happen to anyone. DuPont safety training and programs cannot solve all your problems. It certainly has not worked for DuPont.

It will be interesting to see where DuPont may turn to for assistance — Sustainable Solutions?