Safety and OSHA News

BP exec: ‘Safety is our top priority’ — Where have we heard this before?

“Safety is our top priority.” So said a BP executive in court testimony to determine the company’s liability for the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Where have we heard that before? 

Neil Shaw, currently BP’s COO for global projects, made that statement as part of his testimony in the trial to determine BP’s liability for the rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Of course, the places we’ve heard the “safety is our top priority” phrase before are:

  • our own workplaces
  • other workplaces
  • from executives who speak at safety conferences, and
  • just about anywhere in the business world when an executive is asked the question, “How does employee safety figure into your organization?”

It’s cliché.

Oh, many business people actually mean it. They’re the ones who, every day, send their employees home in the same condition they came into work because of their commitment to safety.

Just how cliché is the phrase? It’s so cliché that executives had to develop a new one.

Have you heard this one? “Priorities can change. Therefore, safety is a value at our company. Values don’t change.”

That line has been bouncing around for at least a few years now. It has also reached cliché status.

Words are words without actions to back them up. Just what do the words “safety is our top priority” mean, and how does a company really show that?

‘Safety was on decline for years’

Getting back to BP for a moment Shaw also stated at the trial that when he took the job with responsibility for Gulf of Mexico drilling in 2008, safety performance had been on the decline for years, and he set out to get it back on track.

Two years later, on April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon happened.

Shaw says he implemented a new safety plan for BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling sites in 2009. He says his team reviewed every single personal and process safety incident on a weekly basis.

But an expert testifying for the plaintiffs in the trial said BP never fully implemented the plan.

Shaw said in his weekly meetings with other BP executives, “The first thing we always talked about was safety.”

Too bad that’s also become a cliché.

‘Every ______ counts’

Plaintiffs have argued at the trial that BP sacrificed safety for production. They point to BP’s mantra at the time, “Every dollar counts,” as proof.

In this post, we’ve been pretty critical of clichés. But, as long as BP was going to use one about what really counts, maybe another six-letter word instead of “dollar” would have served the company better: “Every person counts.”

What’s interesting about the news coverage of of Shaw’s testimony is that he seems to speak about safety in the abstract. It’s a thing … something you do at work.

It might have been illuminating to challenge Shaw to remember, since he talked about them every week, one specific safety incident involving a particular employee. If it was a serious injury (one that required a hospital visit), could he remember the employee’s name? What job did the person do for BP? How did the injury happen? What did the company do to make sure that type of injury was less likely to happen again?

More than spouting clichés, like “safety is our top priority” and “we begin every meeting with safety,” knowing those sort of facts about his company’s safety record would have been a better test of a BP executive’s commitment to workplace safety, because, after all, safety is about people.

What’s your experience been with top executives regarding their commitment to safety? Do they spout similar clichés without backing up their words with actions? Do you have an example of executives showing they had real commitments to safety? Share you stories in the comment box below.

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  1. I work for a major oil company, not BP, but close….our company touts safety first, do it safely or not at all, report all injuries, report all safety hazards, etc, etc. However, when you report an injury, they most likely will drug test you (even if the injury is minor), and force you to drive with a safety rep one hour into town to get a bandage put on your finger for a scratch (by the way, you usually have to wait an hour for the safety guy to get here from town). Then they will change the incident free sign to ‘0’, cancel the safety bbq, tell every one what you did and say it was your fault, lower your safety bonus, and then, if the injury is serious enough, they literally make you crawl on your hands and knees in the medical exam to get your job back…..but if you don’t report the injury you get a 60 day safety bbq with tri tip, chicken, hot links, salad, etc, extra money at the end of the year, the incident free sign adds up to make them look good, you don’t ever see the safety guy (he only shows up when there’s an injury), oh, and they don’t make you feel like an ‘ass’ for reporting an injury. Is that the type of safety commitment this article is talking about?

  2. Matt,

    I am in the safety field. I am at every job site at least once daily and we currently have 14 jobsites in progress including jobs that our subcontractors are on. I check everyone’s PPE, their inspection paperwork and daily paperwork. Perform observations of the tasks etc. If there are deficiencies, I coach them on the corrections. It sounds to me like you have a safety person whom has no business in the Safety Field. Safety is about coaching and teaching, giving the people the correct tools to safely perform their tasks. Sending employees home to their families in the same condition that they came to work in. It is not about being a cop and / or placing blame on an individual. If I had wanted to be a cop, I would have – I would have also made a hell of a lot more money! There are times when there will be an individual whom just doesn’t get it – you can either go above and beyond with the teaching and coaching or get them to understand that all regulations are written in someone’s blood. If people all used good sense or common sense, there wouldn’t be a need for OSHA or Safety Directors.

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