Ross Macfarlane is a regular reader of SafetyAtWorkBlog and an active safety professional in Australia. Below he provides his perspective on BP’s approach to safety as an ex-employee [links added]:
As an ex-BP employee I am again feeling a strong sense of dismay at what is occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. The fact that BP appears to be deliberately distancing itself from Deepwater is a further shift from the radical openness policy that prevailed up until the Texas City disaster in 2005.
Prior to Texas City, BP was in the thrall of its charismatic CEO (then Sir John, now Lord Browne,) but since then, it seems to me, it struggles with its identity and its corporate culture. In 2000, when I became a part of BP with Castrol, I was struck by what I saw as a “Cult of Lord Browne” – he had led the company from an industry basket case in the early 90s to a market leader which acquired businesses like Amoco, Arco and Castrol. BP was the first oil company to acknowledge the fact of global warming, and take a stand to ameliorate it. In the eyes of the BP employees who survived the multiple restructures, their opinion of the CEO rose along with the net worth of their company shares.
But an oil company styling itself as the greenest business in the world was not the only irreconcilable contradiction in BP’s early noughties corporate culture. The explosion at Texas City on 23 March 2005, which killed 15 and injured 170, was followed in the same year by a massive land oil spill at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and a serious insider trading scandal involving a few LPG traders on the Chicago commodities exchange.
As a result, not only the public, but many overly credulous BP employees were forced to confront the fact that the company wasn’t the greenest, nor was it the most ethical, and especially, it was far from the safest company in even its own dangerous industry. In my view, that includes Lord Browne and his then probable successor John Manzoni, neither of whom are still with BP. They were genuinely shocked, I believe, to discover the company wasn’t what they had spun it as. How could they be so misguided, or misled?
In the early 2000s BP espoused four corporate values: green, progressive, innovative, and performance-driven. The first three were the spin, but the fourth – that it would perform for its shareholders – told the tale. Middle managers were driven to find ways to drive more cost out of the business (I recall a company-wide cash squeeze in early 2002, so BP could acquire the German oil company Veba.) As Andrew Hopkins has eloquently described in Failure To Learn, over the long term, chronic underinvestment had its inevitable outcome at Texas City.
What I believe Professor Hopkins missed, though, was the effect of the Lord Browne personality cult. His aura was such that right up to Group Vice-President level, he was surrounded by yes-men who simply couldn’t believe that it wasn’t all true, and couldn’t bring themselves to hear, less still be the bearers of, bad news. When the truth of the company spin was out, the true believers simply didn’t know what to believe – and to this day, in my opinion, BP still doesn’t know what it stands for. The current CEO, Tony Hayward, was one of those yes-men, and today he still comes across to me as a lightweight and out of his depth.
So where did BP go wrong? Perhaps an anecdote from my own experiences has a clue. In 2002, I had the task of preparing two Victorian BP sites for a SafetyMAP self-insurance audit. Relatively new to BP and to safety, I sought the guidance of a senior HSE executive, who explained that BP had moved beyond a culture of simple compliance with OHS law and had embraced a DuPont-style “commitment” culture (he even showed me a nice graph!) What I suspected though, and what was subsequently borne out by our experience with the WorkSafe compliance auditors, was that while BP employees were committed to achieving great health and safety performance, our compliance was pretty shoddy: very often, we just didn’t know what the law, or good OHS practice, required. The wallpaper was nice, but a few beams were missing from the underlying structure.
Does this mean companies shouldn’t aspire to higher goals than pure profit and minimal compliance with the laws of countries where they operate? No, of course not. If BP’s failures turn other companies away from aspiring, as it did, to be “a force for good” in the world, that would be as great a tragedy as the actual outcomes.
But lip service isn’t enough. Senior managers must continuously reinvest in safety, and must question every decision not to spend, as hard as they question every decision to invest. And they must be compelled to do so by strong legislation and rigorous, independent oversight of their activities.
Meanwhile, oil pours into the Gulf of Mexico, 11 families grieve, and 15 others confront bitter memories of 2005.