A passion for safety

Ken Rivers, CEO of the New Zealand Refining Company, explains his obsession with industry safety to David Palmer.

Ken_Rivers.jpgAsked for a defining statement of himself in the energy industry, Ken Rivers (pictured) replies, “An absolute passion for safety.”

Yorkshire-born and raised, Rivers joined Shell in the UK as a process engineer before moving into the commercial and managerial side of things. In the early 1980s he was posted to run the world’s second smallest oil refinery, at Lutong in Sarawak.

“It was a great opportunity. I mean it was a pretty dinky sort of refinery, about as big as this office block I’m in now, but suddenly I was responsible for a range of people and activities.”

The importance of safe workplaces, hitherto an academic concept for him, was driven home after he had been on the job just three weeks.

“I got a call that Abdul had been injured. I rushed to the hospital – it was actually more a corrugated-iron shed at the end of a dirt road – and found Abdul lying there with a bone sticking out of his arm, blood all over the bed, and in agony because the morphine hadn’t kicked in. His wife and kids were out in the corridor, terrified, expecting the worst.

“I suddenly realised that safety is not about efficiency or lost time or unnecessary costs. Safety is about real people, real pain, real long term effects that strike deep into families. And in this industry when things go wrong they can go wrong in a big way – explosions, fires, clouds of toxic stuff. It made me a self-confessed safety zealot. We’re hurting far too many people.”

When his employer, Sarawak Shell Berhad, asked for volunteers for specialised safety training, Rivers responded and worked hard to become an expert. He then applied the lessons. He says that after a history of frequent injuries Lutong went without another lost-time accident until it shut down 17 years later.

However, for Rivers the improving of safety procedures was only the first of three stages his journey passed through. Stage two involved personal responsibility.

“A dear colleague of mine who operated a very large chemical plant in Canada had the courage to tell this story at a conference. He said he was away on a three-day management course when he got a call from the plant at 3a.m. saying a gas cloud had been released near an office block. Had it ignited, scores might have died. He said his first thought was, what have they done? What mistake have they made? It wasn’t until later that he realised he should have asked, what was my mistake? What did I do or not do that caused the accident?”

Rivers says a sense of personal responsibility causes fundamental behaviour changes. “You want to fully understand what you’re doing and all the factors involved.”

An idea might look good from an operational or financial standpoint, “But there’s a constant questioning of systems, procedures, people.” The means justifies the end.

Finally stage three of his journey. “This came very much later in my career, really as a profound insight in the last two years or so. It amounts to seeing the pattern of events. Studying all the forces at play.”

Rivers sees the causes of an event as not confined to the workplace, but involving cultural, community and personal influences. Anyone who has read an accident report knows that in a crisis even highly trained professionals can do the most unexpected and strangest things.

“You have to ask, what is in people’s minds? What are they thinking about, worried about? What affects their actions?”

He says that at Marsden Point they exercise “simple but profound” measures on these principles.

“One is to do with conversations on safety. Rather than applauding a project being done to budget, you ask, did we take risks? I tell people at the start of the day we’re going to have a conversation on safety at

the end; that way they’re thinking about safety during it.”

It involves an awareness of how language affects thinking. “So often when we manage safety it’s all ‘don’ts’. But what you say determines how you think. The ‘zero harm’ catchphrase gets used a lot, but if you say, ‘don’t harm people’ what you’re thinking about is harm.

In sport they know this – in cricket they say ‘catch the ball!’ not ‘don’t drop the ball!’ How do we frame it in a positive way?”

One way is to “make safety personal”, he says You can theorise about the importance of making sure none of the 500-odd people on site get hurt, but it’s hard for anyone to get their head around the reality of that.

“We just talk about getting safely home every day. It’s do with me, my mates, my home. That makes an impact on what I think.”

He says a danger of workplaces now is, ironically, their increasing safety. “Refineries are getting ever more reliable – we have less than one percent downtime here. It’s much less hands-on, mostly just monitoring systems. We’ve got panel-men who’ve never seen a trip.” But how will staff unused to dealing with problems cope with a sudden emergency?

“Training is vital: practicing emergency procedures and dealing with unusual situations in classrooms. Also you organise teams so there is a good mix of skills and experience.”

Trust is also important for Rivers. “I make sure my managers and supervisors know I trust them. I give them the support to act on their own initiative. If there’s a problem, just shut the bloody thing down and don’t worry about the expense. Then get it back up again when it’s safe. They can make the call, and I won’t bug them if their caution proves to have been unnecessary.”

He says that on a recent health and safety visit, Minister of Labour Kate Wilkinson heard from contractors that the refinery was the safest workplace they’d ever been on.

“What I’ve done in my two years here is challenge the organisation to raise the bar on safety. I’ve put my heart and soul into it, and they’ve seen this and responded with enthusiasm. Folk are up for it. They’re excited about it.”


Energy NZ  Vol.4 No.3  May-June 2010
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