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Building a culture of safety at ExxonMobil

13th January 2016

Darren W Woods, senior vice president at ExxonMobil, speaks about the Valdez spill and how that spurred the company on to greater efforts in its quest for accident free operations

Darren W Woods, senior vice president at ExxonMobil, speaks about the Valdez spill and how that spurred the company on to greater efforts in its quest for accident free operations

Darren W Woods, senior vice president at ExxonMobil,
Darren W Woods, senior vice president at ExxonMobil,

Born in Wichita, Kansas, Darren Woods is a graduate of Texas A&M University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. He also holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois.

Woods first joined Exxon Company International in 1992 as a planning analyst in Florham Park, New Jersey. He progressed through a number of domestic and international assignments for Exxon Company International, ExxonMobil Chemical Company, and ExxonMobil Refining and Supply Company. 

In 2005 he was appointed vice president of ExxonMobil Chemical Company in Houston, Texas, where he managed global specialty-chemical businesses. In 2008, he moved to Brussels, Belgium, to work as ExxonMobil Refining and Supply Company director of refining for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. In 2010, he was appointed vice president of supply and transportation and moved to Fairfax, Virginia. Two years later he was appointed president of ExxonMobil Refining and Supply Company and vice president of ExxonMobil Corporation. In this role, he had primary responsibility for ExxonMobil’s global refining, supply, and transportation activities. 

“Energy is the indispensable industry” Woods says. “It fuels development and human progress around the world. Our industry touches the lives of billions of people every day. Access to reliable and abundant sources of energy is the foundation for our many areas of society’s advancement.” 

The modern world in which we live – a world of electricity, transport, trade, labour-saving inventions, and profoundly improved health – has been made possible by the widespread use of energy. And where there is no or little access to modern, reliable forms of energy, there is poverty, subsistence living, and undue hardship. 

The immense scale of the global energy industry is hard for many to comprehend. The entire world consumes more than 92 million barrels a day of oil and liquid fuels. “That works out to more than 1,000 barrels per second,” Woods adds. “But these statistics pale when put in the context of the story of even one of the projects that supply the world with energy. For instance, on the east coast of Canada, we are progressing a project called Hebron. Hebron will take five years to build. It will cost more than USD14 billion. It is scheduled to start up in 2017, and over the course of its 30-year lifetime, it will likely produce about 700 million barrels of oil. People who haven’t even been hired yet will spend most of their entire careers working on this project. And yet, Hebron’s entire production will be enough to supply current global demand for just eight days. 

That is just one project. To meet the enormous and growing demands of advancing nations, the industry has pioneered technologies and techniques that are often compared to putting an astronaut on the moon. Consider ultra-deepwater production, which started in the Gulf of Mexico. Ultra-deepwater entails drilling from a platform offshore in water as deep as two miles. From there, wells are drilled to pinpoint accuracy another five miles below the ocean floor. 

“I know quite a few engineers who make a compelling case that this is far more difficult than sending people to the moon – admittedly, they work in our industry – and, yet, our industry does it every day,” Woods says. 

But all the endeavours, pioneering spirit and innovation must be done safely. The cost of accidents, in lives, environmental damage and cost is huge when working on projects at such scale. “ExxonMobil's approach to running our business: safety, operational integrity, and risk management is a culture, not a priority. We often hear it said that companies must make safety a top priority. We believe that a commitment to safety must run much deeper than simply being a priority.

“A company's priorities evolve over time depending on business conditions and other factors. A commitment to safety therefore, must be more than a priority, it must be a value – a core value that shapes decision-making all the time, at every level. Every company desires safe operations, but the great and abiding challenge is to translate this desire into action. 

“The answer is not found only in written rules, standards, and procedures. While these are important and necessary, they alone are not enough. The answer is ultimately found in a company's culture, the unwritten standards and norms that shape mind-sets, attitudes, and behaviours. Companies must develop a culture in which the value of safety is embedded in every level of the workforce. It must be reinforced at every turn. And it must be upheld above all other considerations. This is something that we spend a lot of time working at ExxonMobil.” 

The most important event in the evolution of ExxonMobil’s safety culture dates back to 1989 and the Valdez spill. Valdez was a low point. “It was a traumatic event, with enormous consequences for all involved,” Woods explains. “But it also served as a catalyst and a turning point which prompted us to completely re-evaluate how ExxonMobil understands, approaches, and manages risk. That is not to say that, prior to Valdez, we did not take safety seriously. ExxonMobil had been in business for more than 100 years, and we had always taken steps to maintain safe operations. 

“In fact, we were proud of our safety record. We believed, as our safety credo at the time stated, that all accidents and injuries are preventable. Like many companies, we worked to meet or exceed all industry safety standards. We trained our employees in safety procedures. And we tracked metrics that measured our success, but we did not have the comprehensive and systematic approach to managing this aspect of our business as we have today.” 
In the early 1990s, ExxonMobil undertook a visionary approach. The goal was to wholly re-organise the work to make safety – of people, facilities, and the environment – an integral part of everything it did. In this approach safety would not only come first, it would pervade every step and stage of planning, development, and execution its work. 

“It was the beginning of a long journey for our company,” Woods continues. “One that we are still on. We know that we cannot rest or waver from the objective of driving incidents to zero. We are certainly not there. But we have made significant progress. As we have advanced in this journey, our experience continues to reinforce that improvements have to be driven from within the company. 

“Governments cannot impose a safety culture, and we cannot hire one. Regulators, experts, and consultants provide valuable services, but for an organisation to change its culture, change must come from the inside-out, not the outside-in. You cannot buy a safety culture off the shelf. You have to craft it yourself. 

“So we began. We began by creating a framework that puts our safety commitment into measurable action. Today, that framework is called the Operations Integrity Management System, or OIMS for short. Because OIMS is multi-faceted, it can be hard to describe briefly. But here are the basics. OIMS is a rigorous 11-point set of elements designed to identify hazards and manage risk. Its framework covers all aspects of safety, management leadership and accountability, design, construction and maintenance of facilities, operating procedures, emergency preparedness, management of change, assessment of performance, and, of course, thorough inquiries into incidents. 

“OIMS guides the activities of each of ExxonMobil’s more than 75,000 employees, as well as our third-party contractors, all around the world. Over time, it has become embedded into our work processes at all levels. Through OIMS, ExxonMobil monitors, benchmarks, and measures all aspects of our safety performance. Its structure and standards are shared and communicated the world over.” 

One of the greatest benefits of OIMS is that it has enabled ExxonMobil – a large organisation that operates across diverse cultures and geographies – to be of one mind when it comes to safety and risk management. You can visit a refinery, a lab, an office building, or an offshore platform anywhere in the world and immediately be on the same page as the local workforce regarding safety practices and expectations. 

“We expect our contractors to be knowledgeable and aligned with our OIMS requirements,” Woods explains. “Not every company has this mind set, but we have found that when everyone in the workplace speaks the same language of safety – and works to the same standards – better results follow. You may have heard the phrase: ‘If you can't measure it, you can't manage it’. We believe it’s true. That is why ExxonMobil measures and analyses its safety performance – all the way down the line, to every business level.

We record not just our injuries, but our near misses. We know there are lessons in each of these. 

“We also learn OIMS required assessments. Importantly, these assessments at ExxonMobil are performed not only by trained safety personnel, but by cross-functional, cross-regional teams drawn from all over our global operations. In this way, all employees feel responsible for each other’s safety. It also helps employees take the safety knowledge they learn back to their home sites and back to their communities.” 

Yet, OIMS by itself is only one part of the equation. Even the best safety systems are not fully effective unless they exist as part of a broader culture of safety. While ExxonMobil and other energy companies use a lot of equipment – everything from concrete and steel pipe to supercomputers and deepwater submersibles – it is people who apply and operate this technology. Their behaviour determines safety performance. 

“By beginning to instil the value of safety in our employees from the first day of hire, ExxonMobil strives to create a working environment in which safe behaviours are internalised, reinforced, and rewarded,” Woods says. “The culture of safety starts with leadership. Leadership drives behaviour and behaviour establishes culture. Leaders influence culture by setting expectations, building structure, teaching others, and driving accountability. 

“That is why the first element of OIMS is ‘management leadership and accountability’. ExxonMobil managers are expected to lead the OIMS process. A significant part of their performance assessment is based on doing this successfully. But management alone cannot drive an organisation’s behaviour. For a culture of safety to flourish, it must be engrained throughout the organisation.

“To get where we need to be on safety, continuous improvement is essential. In an industry such as ours – which operates 24 hours a day, around the world — the need to manage risk never ends. Even the best safety framework should be viewed as a work in progress. Developing a culture of safety is a journey. 

“For ExxonMobil, that journey was transformed nearly a quarter century ago, when we put our global safety framework in place. Once that framework became embedded in our organisation, we saw the culture start to change and our results improve. Over the years I have seen people at all levels come to understand that our safety systems are put in place for them. They see that it is all about protecting themselves, their co-workers, and their communities. 

“Until an organisation reaches the point where everyone owns the system and believes in it, until it enters the hearts and minds of the people to become a very part of who they are as a company, that system and culture of safety is not sustainable. 

“We often use the phrase at ExxonMobil, ‘Nobody Gets Hurt’ to describe our safety objective. Some observers of our company question this. They say it cannot be done. We disagree. It can be done. We have units operating today that have gone years without a recordable injury.”