Posted on: July 20, 2010 Posted by: Diane Swarts Comments: 0

Why has petrochemicals giant BP not learned from the deaths of 15 people at Texas City refinery, to suffer a similar disaster again in 2010? BP is not ‘mindful’, but a ‘mindless’ organisation.

In 2009 October, the USA Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined BP North America $87-m for failure to correct identified hazards. The prior largest penalty, of $21-m, was issued in 2005, also against BP, writes behavioural technologist David Broadbent.

Several safety violations at BP’s Texas City refinery resulted in a massive explosion in March 2005. BP then accepted an agreement with OSHA to eliminate or manage hazards.

The 2009 fines followed a six month inspection by OSHA, designed to evaluate the extent to which BP has complied with the 2005 agreement and OSHA baseline standards. The inspection found hundreds of violations of the agreement, and hundreds of new violations.

Workers taking shortcuts, failing to report, failing to remedy, are merely following company risk tolerance, company culture, and company procedure.

Safety culture is explored by many practitioners and organisations, yet many have no idea what it is. Most managers have no idea of how to leverage opinion leaders to direct safety culture towards required or agreed levels.

The ideal is robust resistance, beyond the questioning attitude often written about. It is fine to ‘ask the question’, but more important to having the strength of conviction to act on the result.

Human nature is to continue current behaviour, despite recognising high risk, explains behavioural technologist David Broadbent on

HIigh reliability organisations (HROs)

Study of high reliability organisations (HROs), those that have avoided catastrophes in an environment where ‘accidents’ are expected due to risk factors and complexity, include aircraft carrier decks, nuclear power stations, and military operations.

They share a culture of collective mindfulness. One of the guys instrumental in refining the identity of an HRO also happens to have been one of the key individuals who developed the Collective Mindfulness way of thinking; prof Karl Weick.

If Sundance Resources, the welder up the ladder, or BP were ‘mindful’ organisations, it is likely that circumstances would have turned out differently.

One of the five key elements of a mindful organisation is referred to as, “preoccupation with failure”. What that means is that the organisation is forever vigilant for these things, particularly little things that just may go wrong.

Often, when we conduct an incident investigation into a “big” accident, we find that it has occurred due to a number of the “little” things intersecting at that moment in time.

In a Mindful Organisation those “little things” are far more likely to be recognized and appropriately dealt with or resolved.

Within an organisation that encourages “mindful leadership” we would see a sense of “unease” dripping down through the layers of the organisation. Now, that is a good thing. When we are a little uneasy, we are more likely to be more vigilant.

When I was taught to drive a motor vehicle, my instructor said ‘assume the other driver is likely to make an error in front of you, and consider how to escape’. This had saved my skin more than once in my driving career.

A good friend in South Africa who flies a little Jabiru aircraft said to me last year; “while you are flying you are always looking for somewhere to land”. The pilot is applying a mindful approach to the flight cycle.

Should we be scared? We should be scared because there are very few organisations and leaders who are actually “mindful”. Our entire industrial system is founded on a system that leaves us prone to be “mindless”.

Some organisations become mindless organisations.

* David D Broadbent is the founder and CEO of and the above is abridged from Vol 6, Issue 2, April 2010


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