Focus on Individual Decision Making Drives Safety Journey

Topics: Safety/health

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The complete paper discusses ExxonMobil’s focus on the next phase of its safety journey through advancement of individual awareness and decision making to help drive breakthroughs in the operator’s vision of safety. This methodology empowers and enables safe decision making at all levels of an organization by providing new knowledge and techniques, and links these to current behavioral-based safety practices. In particular, a program called Safe Choice, first developed for the ExxonMobil Hebron Project integration, hookup, and commissioning construction (IHUC) site in Newfoundland, Canada, is detailed. The paper also covers the implementation-blueprint process the operator has used to enable each business unit to adapt and further the codevelopment process for local needs while maintaining core principles.


For many years, the energy industry has understood both the moral and business imperatives for providing effective safety-management systems to keep employees, contractors, the communities in which they operate, and the environment safe. In pursuing its safety program entitled “Nobody Gets Hurt,” ExxonMobil seeks performance breakthroughs that will eliminate not only fatalities and higher-consequence injuries and outcomes, but all hurts, including those of lower severity. The company has focused its efforts on operations-integrity management systems, process safety, transformational leadership, safety culture, and human factors that affect its systems and processes.

Considerable study of human factors has led to a number of innovations, including classification of incidents on the basis of both hurt and potential-hurt levels. A detailed study of upstream events in 2015 found that although decisions made in the moment affected some incidents, many had resulted from decisions made sometimes days, months, or even years earlier. From this analysis, the company identified some higher-priority areas of focus for its safety-management systems, and, most importantly, identified a need for enhancing decision-making knowledge and awareness as a step toward conscious, safer decision making. Understanding the human factors behind decision making was critical to unlocking a breakthrough in performance.

Recent efforts have focused on factors that influence individual risk tolerance, with more emphasis on helping identify what those factors are but less on how and why those influences work. The concept of risk tolerance has not always resonated with all workforce groups. However, framing risk tolerance as a series of decisions by individuals has made more sense across the organization. The company’s focus thus has shifted to providing a better understanding of the influences upon, and effects of, choice.

During the same period, ExxonMobil Canada Energy was exploring a program called Safe Choice for building and installing the Hebron offshore producing and drilling platform in Newfoundland. The IHUC project took place at the Bull Arm site near St. John’s, with some of the facilities constructed in other parts of the world. Following successful codevelopment and application of a fit-for-­purpose program for Hebron’s IHUC work scope, the program was further adapted and expanded across the upstream organization.

The small-group approach to training includes each worker receiving an individual decision-making style report, and creates an atmosphere of appreciative inquiry, trust, and openness. Developing supporting strategies for leadership that foster a continuation of this atmosphere once back in the field (and outside of the classroom) has proven effective. Use of the new language and concepts is evident in daily meetings such as toolbox talks as well as shift-handover and safety meetings, and is used during conversations in the field.

Safe Choice

The complete paper describes the Safe Choice program, its components, and its implementation at ExxonMobil. The program joins Ingenium’s experience in decision-making science and leadership with that of the operator’s Center of Expertise in human factors. The operator’s experience, along with that of its partners, at its various business units around the globe is integrated with the program to make it fit for local purpose and culture. Also, the program is designed to be flexible in meeting business units at any point on their safety journey. The program’s core principles are present in all locations, but each location is given a significant degree of freedom to adapt to local needs.

Program components include decision-making science, human-performance principles and concepts, the codevelopment approach itself, and a summary of the program and its core principles. The decision-making-science component tracks the development of the science in the second half of the 20th century. It includes a description of a decision-making style inventory that has been adapted as an online portal questionnaire that generates a personal report to test for decision-making styles in the area of safety and safe choices for leaders and workers throughout the upstream energy industry. The testing model is based on the idea that styles vary along two different dimensions: value orientation, which reflects the extent to which individuals focus their attention on either task and technical concerns or people and social concerns when making decisions; and tolerance for ambiguity, which reflects the extent to which an individual has a high need for structure or control. Also included in this section is the role that values and cognitive perception play in decision making, and the results of research used as a reference point for decision-making capacity. The human-­performance component also discusses bias in decision making, fast and slow thinking modes of mental processing, and the importance of presence in the moment.

The codevelopment-approach discussion follows the three stages of implementation that have taken place thus far: initial application at Hebron IHUC in 2015 and 2016; operating-unit adaptation in Australia and Alberta in the first half of 2017; and implementation across upstream assets in the US, Canada, Russia, and Malaysia in 2017 and 2018.

The program-description ­discussion covers the 1-day training class, the field-coaching program, and sustainment through integration with existing safety-management practices. While an intended consequence of the program, the significant unleashing of creativity and empowerment from workforce members around the world has exceeded expectations. Although the program is tailored, and therefore slightly different at each of the local applications, the consistent core principles allow for the global community to work effectively despite these differences; practitioners gain a sense of belonging to something larger than their own business unit. Along with a sense of greater connection, community members gain a sense of pride as their own business-unit ideas are adopted by others, and practitioners also are able to tap into an array of fresh ideas from others that can be adapted to their own organization. This empowerment has been achieved with simple techniques of connection such as periodic global teleconferences, employee-communication applications, and other central reference resources.

Early Results

In implementing Safe Choice, the operator has elected not to introduce any new key performance indicators (KPIs) to its business units in the interest of balancing the degree of change with consistency of purpose of familiar processes. With any new program, there is always the potentially unintended consequence of burdening organizations unnecessarily with new data-gathering and reporting requirements. Rather, it is in local, insightful evaluation of leading indicators of engagement (safety conversations, ongoing discussions, and depth of thinking) in existing programs such as hazard recognition, behavioral observation, and employee-engagement programs that cultural shift change will be revealed.

In the absence of new KPI requirements, the central team works with each business unit to develop a first pass of qualitative measures that will indicate success. While these methods of measurement may not seem traditional, great insight can be gained by viewing qualitative measures (Fig. 1). Transformational, step-change improvements take time, and change is not measured easily over short periods. It is anticipated that, in the long run, Safe Choice will contribute, along with other focus areas, to breakthrough performance that will be reflected in metrics.

Fig. 1—Qualitative input regarding Safe Choice implementation from four early adopters. 1 is infrequently observed and 5 is consistently observed.


This article, written by JPT Technology Editor Judy Feder, contains highlights of paper SPE 191514, “Safe Choice—Operationalizing Human Performance Science in Decision-Making,” by Carla Santamaria, Jim K. Flood, Paul C. Schuberth, SPE, Jorge J. Morell, Jaime R. Hinojosa, and Justin Haddock, ExxonMobil, and Hugh O’Donnell, Eric Sandelands, Mel Cowan, and Alan Higgins, Ingenium, prepared for the 2018 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, Dallas, 24–26 September. The paper has not been peer reviewed.

Focus on Individual Decision Making Drives Safety Journey

01 August 2019

Volume: 71 | Issue: 8



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