Very little has been published in peer-reviewed journals on empowerment and safety in the offshore oil industry, noted Rhona Flin, professor of industrial psychology, Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University, and Christiane Spitzmueller, professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Houston, who provided an overview of the research on worker empowerment that served as the research basis for their
presentation.1 Researchers have studied worker empowerment—which Flin defined as having the power or authority to do something, most often in a work or legal environment—for more than 40 years. But she noted that most of these studies have been on aspects of job performance, especially productivity and efficiency.2,3 Empowerment linked to safety also has been investigated, she said, but mainly in the context of health care, such as studies of conditions in the workplace that give nurses enough confidence to speak up about patient safety.4,5
According to Spitzmueller, despite the paucity of research on empowerment and safety in the offshore oil industry, studies of workers’ safety
1 Hofmann, D.A., Burke, M.J., and Zohar, D. (2017). 100 years of occupational safety research: From basic protections and work analysis to a multilevel view of workplace safety and risk. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(3), 375–388.
Nahrgang, J.D., Morgeson, F.P., and Hofmann, D.A. (2011). Safety at work: A meta-analytic investigation of the link between job demands, job resources, burnout, engagement, and safety outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(1), 71–94.
Christian, M.S., Bradley, J.C., Wallace, J.C., and Burke, M.J. (2009). Workplace safety: A meta-analysis of the roles of person and situation factors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1103–1127.
Visser, E., Pijl, Y.J., Stolk, R.P., Neeleman, J., and Rosmalen, J.G. (2007). Accident proneness, does it exist? A review and meta-analysis. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 39(3), 556–564.
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Burke, M.J., Salvador, R.O., Smith-Crowe, K., Chan-Serafin, S., Smith, A., and Sonesh, S. (2011). The dread factor: How hazards and safety training influence learning and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(1), 46–70.
Clarke, S., and Robertson, I. (2005). A meta-analytic review of the Big Five personality factors and accident involvement in occupational and non-occupational settings. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78(3), 355–376.
2 Kanter, R.M. (1977). Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books.
3 Chen, G., Kirkman, B.L., Kanfer, R., Allen, D., and Rosen, B. (2007). A multilevel study of leadership, empowerment, and performance in teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(2), 331–346.
4 Armstrong, K., Laschinger, H., and Wong, C. (2009). Workplace empowerment and magnet hospital characteristics as predictors of patient safety climate. Journal of Nursing Care Quality, 24(1), 55–62.
5 Richardson, A., and Storr, J. (2010). Patient safety: A literative review on the impact of nursing empowerment, leadership and collaboration. International Nursing Review, 57(1), 12–21.
behaviors in the offshore sector6,7 as well as research on empowerment from other sectors8,9 reveal many issues related to worker empowerment and safety, including worker engagement, participation, prioritization of safety over production, workplace culture, employee voice, job insecurity, and layoffs. These and other factors, she noted, can be combined into a framework that provides a way of analyzing the effects of both context and workplace conditions on worker empowerment and safety behaviors (see Figure 3-1). As Spitzmueller observed, the processes outlined in this framework may not always be linear, but it provides a broad overview of what context and management decisions mean for worker empowerment.
As indicated in the framework, Spitzmueller pointed out, some key fac-
6 Dahl, Ø., and Olsen, E. (2013). Safety compliance on offshore platforms: A multi-sample survey on the role of perceived leadership involvement and work climate. Safety Science, 54, 17–26.
7 Mearns, K., Flin, R., Gordon, R., and Fleming, M. (1998). Measuring safety climate on offshore installations. Work & Stress, 12(3), 238–254.
8 Erdogan, B., Ozyilmaz, A., Bauer, T.N., and Emre, O. (2017). Accidents happen: Psychological empowerment as a moderator of accident involvement and its outcomes. Personnel Psychology, 71(1), 67–83.
9 Mearns, K., Whitaker, S.M., and Flin, R. (2003). Safety climate, safety management practice and safety performance in offshore environments. Safety Science, 41(8), 641–680.
tors that influence empowerment are essentially out of a company’s control. As an example, she pointed to national culture, which can influence how likely people are to speak up to someone higher in a power hierarchy.10 The regulatory regime can influence levels of workers’ legal protection, she observed, which in turn can be reflected in worker behaviors. Likewise, she said, both the price of oil and job insecurities are out of a company’s control but play a role in a worker’s confidence in exerting authority. She noted that research also has revealed some of the ways to modify these influences. For example, she said, if layoffs are conducted in a procedurally just fashion, the consequences of job insecurity can be mitigated, although she suggested that much more needs to be learned about this interaction.11
Spitzmueller also cited differences between high-power-distance cultures12 and cultures in which managers are not expected to answer all questions. In high-power-distance cultures, she explained, the expectation is that the manager knows everything, which can have profound effects on how an employee responds when, for example, seeing something that is wrong. “Culture is something that we grew up with,” she said, “not something that we change. But what we have to do is understand that those differences exist.” She added that mechanisms then can be built into work systems and internal work environments to mitigate issues that arise because of a particular culture.
At the level of organizational management, Spitzmueller identified corporate culture, human resources systems, communication, peer support, and resources as predictors of worker empowerment. As a specific example, she cited a requirement that onshore managers spend a certain amount of time offshore as having the potential to exert a powerful effect on an organization. Similarly, she suggested, the often subtle messages that first-line supervisors get from higher-ups in an organization can influence what happens offshore.13 “We know that leadership style plays a role in the daily discussions and interactions about prioritizing safety,” she observed. In that respect, she argued, empowerment is an exchange relationship whereby the
10 Mearns, K., and Yule, S. (2009). The role of national culture in determining safety performance: Challenges for the global oil and gas industry. Safety Science, 47(6), 777–785.
11 Brockner, J., and Greenberg, J. (1990). The impact of layoffs on survivors: An organizational justice perspective. In J.S. Carrol (Ed.), Applied Social Psychology and Organizational Settings (pp. 45–75). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
12 Hofstede, G. (2003). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
13 Zohar, D. (2002). The effects of leadership dimensions, safety climate, and assigned priorities on minor injuries in work groups. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23(1), 75–92.
employee is given autonomy and the power to make decisions and speak up.14
From the worker’s perspective, Spitzmueller continued, predictors of empowerment include perceived organizational support; psychological safety; trust; and confidence in capabilities, systems, oneself, and the organization. Empowered workers, she stated, are more likely to feel that a company truly cares about workers’ well-being and values. Similarly, she said, a feeling of psychological safety15 can benefit someone who is observing a job and wants to stop it because continuing appears to be too risky.
Finally, Spitzmueller identified the safety behaviors and capabilities of empowered workers as including actively participating in safety activities, exercising stop-work authority, and reporting unsafe acts or violations of processes. She noted that it can be very difficult for a worker to see someone else doing something wrong and approach that person or report the problem to an authority. She suggested that research can help understand this process—for example, by studying behavioral strategies that can mitigate such situations while avoiding conflict.
Flin pointed to some of the attributes of disempowered workers. Such workers, she explained, can feel disenfranchised or psychologically unsafe, lack confidence, or fear reprisal. “They worry that if they speak up or stop the job that their employment may be affected,” she said, “particularly when the market is difficult and there are job cutbacks.” She asked whether such a worker will be the safest worker on a platform or will keep quiet, avoid confrontation, and hesitate to raise questions.
Finally, Flin identified some of the research gaps that need to be filled. For example, she said, data on the level of empowerment among Gulf of Mexico crews are lacking. She suggested that surveys, interviews, and other tools could be used to measure empowerment, but that these kinds of data are not publicly available today. If companies collect these data, she added, they keep them in-house. She cited as another research gap understanding the factors that influence empowerment and safety behaviors in the offshore oil industry. Researchers know about factors that could be influential, she said, but these factors have not been studied in this industry. Finally, she asserted that interventions designed to enhance empowerment need to be examined, suggesting that scientific studies could quantify the returns in both the short and long terms on investments in worker empowerment.
In response to a question, Spitzmueller observed that worker empower-
14 Hofmann, D.A., and Morgeson, F.P. (1999). Safety-related behavior as a social exchange: The role of perceived organizational support and leader–member exchange. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(2), 286–296.
15 Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350–383.
ment is a general state that extends well beyond safety. For example, she noted, research has looked at the effects of worker empowerment on quality issues in such sectors as manufacturing.16 She argued that mechanisms for listening to and obtaining input from workers can have “far-reaching consequences including but not limited to safety.” Flin agreed, citing a study by a Harvard researcher17 that showed how cardiac surgery teams could learn a new technique more quickly if the team members felt safe in asking questions and challenging procedures.
In response to another question, Flin pointed out that many of the same factors apply in health care and on offshore platforms. “Humans have their heads wired up pretty much the same way,” she said, “whatever job they are doing and whatever circumstances they face.” Although she acknowledged that health care and other industries tend to do things somewhat differently, she argued that there is much they could teach the offshore oil industry about safety.
Mick Will, president of Ragtop Consulting LLC, observed that many changes have occurred in the oil business over the 40 years of his career. When he started in the 1970s, he said, the reigning attitude was that “stuff happens in the oil field—people get hurt, some people get hurt bad, there are some fatalities, it was pretty common.” Then, he continued, safety professionals were hired who developed safety rules, although books on safe practices often were placed in gloveboxes or offshore lockers and not consulted. In the next stage of development of safety culture and empowerment, he explained, workers gained enough empowerment to engage in mutual rulemaking with safety managers. The problem with this approach, he argued, was that every near miss or other incident led to a new rule. “We couldn’t possibly write down a procedure or process for everything that somebody is going to have to deal with,” he observed.
According to Will, this history has led to the current stage, which he termed “open safety dialogue,” in which workers and managers are talking about the problems, how to solve them, and how to be safer. However, he asserted, a gap or barrier to true empowerment still exists. He described the industry as headed in the same direction but spread out. Even on the same platform or in the same company, he pointed out, teams and individuals
16 Ugboro, I.O., and Obeng, K. (2000). Top management leadership, employee empowerment, job satisfaction, and customer satisfaction in TQM organizations: An empirical study. Journal of Quality Management, 5(2), 247–272.
17 Edmondson, A.C. (2003). Speaking up in the operating room: How team leaders promote learning in interdisciplinary action teams. Journal of Management Studies, 40(6), 1419–1452.
are “in a whole different place with respect to empowerment.” Some feel free to talk and participate, he said, whereas some are “still at the starting gate,” so that “it is very hard to characterize an overall industry outlook.”
Will listed several of the factors that make a difference between those who are at the forefront in worker empowerment and those who are just starting: safety and environmental management systems, safety goals and measures, documented safe work practices, operating procedures, management of change, incident investigation, control of work, audit processes, regulations, training requirements, and competency programs. But he identified as the most important factor that workers know the answers to some basic questions: Why am I being asked to do it this way? Why is it better than what I have been doing? Why are we talking about this? “It’s got to be personal,” he asserted. “It’s got to be genuine.” He added that implementing change takes resources at both the individual and team levels, and that resources are inevitably limited.
Implementing change also needs to be a continuous process, Will argued. “This can’t be something that you hear about once in a while, or once every 3 months when the manager shows up on location,” he stressed. “This has to be how to work and be in front of everybody all the time.”
In response to a question about safety leadership, Will observed that leaders are often assessed for their technical competency, but they are evaluated far less often for their leadership abilities. “A lot of work needs to be done on how you do that kind of assessment,” he stated. He also pointed out that competency assessments and performance evaluations are not the same thing, and that people need to be comfortable in saying that they do not feel they have a particular competency. “We struggle with that,” he said.
Finally, in response to another question, Will noted that worker empowerment and safety culture need to extend throughout an organization. “It doesn’t stop at the platform,” he said. “Worker empowerment is not just empowering the people with the wrenches. It’s got to come all the way up through the organization.”
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