Refining Co-op’s Safety Culture: An Interview With Sean Tucker

Every year when I go away for holidays, I inevitably miss some surprisingly controversial council meeting or some really contentious public debate. And every year I make the joke (either in the paper or on the blog or on the phone to Whitworth) that Regina falls apart if I step away even for a second.*

Sooooooo… I went to Edmonton for xmas holidays and this year a part of Regina literally fucking exploded.

That’s it. You’re stuck with me. I’m never leaving again.

You probably know more about what happened than I do seeing as I was safely outside the blast radius so I won’t bore you with a recap. But, as the investigation into what happened at the refinery starts today, I thought I’d share a little interview on the subject I did recently.

Funny thing, a friend of ours just happens to be a business and administration prof at the University of Regina who studies occupational health and safety. Naturally, he’s extremely interested in how and why major incidents keep happening at Federated Co-op’s Regina facility. And he was more than happy to sit down with me and share some of his thoughts on industrial safety.

So here’s a quick highlight from my conversation with Sean Tucker of the U of R’s business faculty…

I don’t think the public response has been adequate to date. I would like to see a greater sense of urgency about safety at the Co-op refinery. I would like to see in a situation like this when a company says it’s committed to safety but the evidence isn’t consistent with that, I think it would have been appropriate for the CEO to come out and make a statement, and a very strong statement about safety and about the immediate steps they’re taking.… They’ve had some serious issues there and came within a hair of potentially multiple fatalities. I think we need to treat this as if there were fatalities. That’s what I mean by sense of urgency. They just got lucky.

After the jump, the complete interview…

Prairie Dog: As an expert on occupational health and safety, what’s your take on this refinery fire?

Sean Tucker: This is the fourth event we’ve had in the last [27 months] and two of them have been severe. This one, the Co-op refinery was very lucky there wasn’t a loss of life. My research relates to occupational health and safety management so I’m separated from the engineering side. They’re doing a site inspection in the coming weeks to figure out what system failed. That’s not my area of expertise. My area of expertise is the interface between the safety experts, the frontline workers, supervisors, all the way up to senior management. I study what we call safety culture. And that’s the extent to which safety is genuinely valued and rewarded in an organization. You can have companies that have good policies on paper that have safety personnel that have all the certifications and training, but iof they aren’t given the power and authority to do their jobs, safety is compromised. So I’m concerned with that interface, I’m concerned with the priority that management puts on safety vis a vis production. And there’s that tension in all businesses around the speed at which work is done and safety.

I spoke to Vic Huard, VP of corporate affairs at the Co-op Refinery, yesterday and he said they take safety very sincerely. He said that since 2010 they’ve been working with two outside consultants.

These out-of-province consultants are working on process safety management. That’s good. I think it’s great that the refinery is getting a fresh set of eyes to look at their processes. But we still have to look at the evidence and the evidence isn’t great. Four fires in 27 months. The last one just by pure luck there were no fatalities.

So, I’m concerned about safety at the refinery. And I don’t think the public response has been adequate to date. I would like to see a greater sense of urgency about safety at the Co-op refinery. I would like to see in a situation like this when a company says it’s committed to safety but the evidence isn’t consistent with that, I think it would have been appropriate for the CEO to come out and make a statement, and a very strong statement about safety and about the immediate steps they’re taking. I know they’re taking a lot of steps around this incident and I don’t doubt that at all. I don’t doubt that they’re following every protocol and they’re running the tests there. But given that it’s a cooperative, given that they’re a large employer, and given the risk that’s associated with that operation I think there’s a high level of expectation of accountability from the public.

It’s a cooperative and they’ve had some serious issues there and came within a hair of potentially multiple fatalities. I think we need to treat this as if there were fatalities. That’s what I mean by sense of urgency. They just got lucky. It was just luck. The fire marshal said that. And if five people lost their lives there would have been a lot of attention on the Co-op and we have to treat it as if there were.

This is another wake-up call and I think we need to revisit at the senior levels of the company and we need to ask the question if the safety personnel have all the power to do their jobs and do they feel like they’re being listened to. We can start that conversation now, we don’t need to wait for a report to come out about this explosion. There are cultural issues we can ask about now and we can investigate accountability.

PD: In cases like this where you have a disconnect between what a company says about their safety commitment and what is actually happening at their facility, where do you usually see the breakdown happening?

ST: It’s hard to say. But one place where I would look is that interface between the safety personnel, the engineers and the management, up to the senior management, I would look at the chain of command and the accountability. I would want to know more about the culture of the organization, where the priorities are in the mind of front-line workers and safety personnel.

It’s possible they have a great safety culture. But this is a red flag for me. This would not be consistent with as good a safety culture as they could have.

I was surprised — and I’m not an expert in the engineering — I was surprised that there wasn’t more of the facility shut down to look at it after the force of that blast, like if that had disrupted other infrastructure. I was just surprised at that. I’m not an expert in the field but that was a very powerful blast and there’s a lot of piping, miles and miles of it out there. I don’t know what it’s engineered to withstand in terms of that kind of impact on site, but it seems to be back to production.

And a lot of talk seems to be about production and getting this back on stream. Which is important, it’s a business. At the same time, it’s important that they assure the public that they’re revisiting the path that they’re on with improving safety.

It’s not enough to say we have these outstanding companies that are consulting with us and helping us out. That’s great and I applaud them for working with them. But they’re still having these incidents.

 

PD: Even if the company has a commitment to safety now, companies change over time. Thinking about the neighbouring communities — the ones already there and the one proposed — how can anyone guarantee that facility will stay safe for 100, 200 years?

ST: That’s why regulation is so important. You’re right, senior managers will come and go. Their word is only good as long as they’re there, as long as they can back it up.

And often when — and I don’t want to imply that the Co-Op has got this problem — but if they do have a problem with their safety culture, what companies will do if they have severe problems with their culture is sometimes they’ll turn over the senior management of the firm. And that’s not always the case. But there are cases where firms have had to do that. They’ve had to clean house and bring in people who have a track record with safety. And I don’t want to, again, imply that’s where the refinery is at. We simply don’t have the evidence on that.

PD: On the regulation side, what have you seen happening around Canada?

ST: This is provincial jurisdiction so the province’s laws cover it. We have — and I’m not sure that this enforced right now — but we have the provincial government, to their credit they’ve really taken some good steps on safety, they’ve increased fines to a maximum of $1.5 million in the province which was a significant increase. That’s for corporations and I think it was $500 thousand for non-incorporated businesses. So they’ve done that which is a step in the right direction. We have some of the highest fines in the country.

Two areas where I’d like to see more attention is more inspectors hired in the province. We’ve had a lot of growth in the last five years and more business opened up, more employment, and my understanding is that our pool of safety inspectors hasn’t grown.

The other area that I think that warrants attention is the prosecution side for violations of the act and the regulations. My understanding is that at the ministry of justice, there is one person working on prosecutions and there is quite a backlog there.

Saskatchewan has the second highest rate of workplace injuries in Canada behind Manitoba. One of the myths is [this is] due to agriculture. Well, agriculture injuries, the injuries on a family farm are not included in those statistics.

People who have looked at this problem, our injury rate, view it as a cultural issue. We don’t as a society in this province don’t put enough emphasis on our own safety. And we have an attitude of jump in and “git ‘er done.”

There are many people and groups who are trying to change that and the government is aware of the injury rate. They’ve introduced some things. I think they can go further.

We had a tragic case where we had a young pregnant woman who on her first day on the job two and a half years ago as a flag person at a construction site and [she] was hit by a motorist who wanted to get to the front of the line. She was killed instantly. And the premier personally got involved in the case and we say a very quick response — better signage in construction zones, tripled fines and, I believe, photo radar on construction sites. If we wanted to solve our problem I think we could. There are going to be multiple tools we’re going to use, but on the general big picture on health and safety, we could do more. But I do want to applaud the government on what they’ve done so far.

PD: Anything you want to say to sum up?

ST: If people think that this is normal, that we’re going to have explosions like this every so often because these liquids are highly flammable, they’re wrong. It’s not normal. These facilities, when properly managed, you don’t have these incidents. This is not normal. That’s why the Co-op refinery is taking steps to bring in outside consultants. They know that. The question is, why do we keep having these incidents?

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FOOTNOTE
*  I’m sorry if the joke is getting tired from repetition but there really isn’t a lot going on in my head and I have to use what I’ve got.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

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