Manufacturing Leadership Council members gathered last week in Freeport, Texas, to tour The Dow Chemical Company’s massive production facility and to hear how Dow has achieved world-class safety performance, a feat that is rooted as much in culture as it is in science and good procedure.

The Freeport site, located about an hour’s drive south of Houston, is the largest integrated chemical manufacturing complex in the Western Hemisphere. Known as Dow’s Texas Operations, the facility was founded in 1940 and was the world’s first plant to extract magnesium from seawater. Today, the integrated site consists of 65 manufacturing units stretched across 20 square miles, employs nearly 7,000 people, and produces 44 percent of the products Dow sells in the U.S. and 20 percent of the company’s products sold globally.

Dow’s Texas Operations produces bulk raw materials, such as ethylene and propylene, as well as thousands of products that are used daily in a wide variety of market segments including food storage, packaging, agriculture, personal care, construction, energy, water, and many others.

ML Council members toured Dow’s new Hydrocarbons Command Center, a pressure-resistant building with 10.5-inch thick concrete walls; its PACK Studios, which was launched in 2013 to accelerate the proliferation of new technologies into the packaging market; and the area where Dow is building a multi-billion dollar, world-scale ethylene “cracker”, a production facility that will be operational next year.

Council members donned hard hats, safety glasses, ear plugs, steel-toed shoes, and reflective vests as they toured the huge construction site where thousands of workers plied their various trades and as enormous cranes lifted materials to build the piping and structures of the plant.

But the subject that permeated every stop on the tour, and was the subject of a panel discussion and roundtable held afterwards, was safety – how to create a culture of safety and sustain it, what its key elements are, how to manage it, and how new, digital technologies may help improve it.

Dow officials emphasized that every meeting held at Texas Operations begins with a “safety moment” in which safety procedures are reviewed, an incident dissected, or a report discussed. Throughout the Freeport site, this safety message is constantly reinforced in conversations, procedures, and messaging. One sign in a construction tent adjacent to where the new ethylene plant is being built summed it up: “Safety is not a hardhat. It is the brain under the hardhat”.

Company officials commented during the panel discussion that establishing and sustaining a culture of safety begins when a person walks in the door at Dow as a new employee and continues through every aspect of the working day. Sustaining that culture doesn’t mean a focus on maintaining the safety status quo, but instead a continuous evolution of safety culture over time. At Dow, safety culture evolution has come to mean a more direct tie between safety and business performance.

One of the programs practiced by all employees is called PACE. The PACE program was developed to drive conversations about and sustainable performance within safety. PACE is an acronym that drives safety-oriented behaviors: P, for make it personal; A, for ask open-ended questions; C, for create an environment where people feel free to ask questions; and E, for escalating issues. The PACE program, a Dow panel member explained, has “one element rooted in science and one element rooted in culture”.

“Safety culture is very engrained at Dow,” said one panelist. “The real crux in sustaining it is on leadership. We have 179 manufacturing sites in 35 countries in Dow. With hundreds of leaders, across multiple sites and businesses, you have to sustain that safety culture through all levels of leadership – all the way to the CEO.”

Every time a new production leader, plant leader, or business leader is named, the individual has to go through an evaluation in which their safety knowledge, including incidents and management systems, is tested. A new leader must study before being examined by an expert review panel of leaders, peers, process safety experts, and technical subject matter experts.

Having command of safety policies, procedures, and day-to-day information is certainly important, but sometimes winning employee hearts and minds about safety means demonstrating the courage of your safety convictions. One Dow panelist told the story of a boiler that developed a leak, requiring her to shut it down. The action reverberated in Dow, forcing other plants to also shut down. But plant workers were impressed that safety took priority over production, and it raised their confidence that Dow meant what it was saying about safety – Safety First, Pounds Second.

The panelists also described the attitude of top Dow management as one in which plant management and workers feel that executives are extremely supportive about providing what it takes to ensure safety. “They don’t want us taking short cuts,” one panelist said. “They want to drive a safety culture. Their message is ‘what do you need from us?’”.

A number of Council members also echoed the importance of the right kind of executive support for safety. One Council member said that his CEO recently started providing safety performance information to company shareholders. “He’s putting us on the spot – in a good way,” the Council member said.

Effectively managing the process of safety can often require making difficult decisions, one of which is judging when to “coach” employees on safety and when to “punish” safety infractions or failures.

One of the first decision points, a member of the Dow panel said, is making sure that a thorough root cause analysis is completed on any problem to determine if the issue is isolated or reflective of something systemic. “Nobody benefits from scapegoating,” the panelist added. Root causes considering technology, management systems, and/or behaviors must be established to understand the event and prevent repeat occurrences.

It is also critical to gather all the information possible about a problem before making a judgment or conclusion. “I would just wish that one or two times what jumps into my brain first is correct,” the panelist said, while commenting on making assumptions during investigations. “What I find is that you have to have a culture of people telling the truth to you. If people feel threatened all the time, stuff gets swept under the rug.”

Another consideration is language. A Dow panelist said that it may be better to characterize a safety problem as a “finding” rather than “reporting an infraction” in order to create objectivity. And it is equally important to pick people who will do an analysis of a problem who are demonstrably unbiased.

A potentially powerful source of information to improve safety can come from what a Dow panelist called “safety near misses.” Near misses are events that nearly happened, but did not. “We have people in our technology centers looking at near-miss data,” he said. “This data is key, and it takes several years to build a culture to report near misses so people know that there won’t be repercussions. This data is very important in finding systemic issues and preventing events.”

In the years ahead, as Dow and other companies increasingly use information technology to digitize their operations and generate huge volumes of data about those activities, will safety be able to be markedly improved?

A key to answering that question in the affirmative will lie with an organization’s ability to effectively use the vast quantities of data that will be generated from increasingly connected equipment and devices. In the past 20 years, the panelists pointed out, there have been significant safety improvements because of safety information coming from instrumentation.

Going forward, new systems such as augmented or virtual reality devices will help advance safety performance, the panelists said. But they warned that the technology can’t become too complex or difficult to use. Case in point: Dow shelved a mobile application it had been using to report safety observations, opting to return to a paper-based card system because of difficulties getting people to use the mobile app.

“There is too much time spent on technology sometimes that does not save time at all,” one panelist said. “The real important thing is to have a lot of eyeballs out there.”