Ben Williams on why feeling chronic unease can avoid safety risk

Feb 26, 2024

In the January issue of Onsite, we reported on the success EPC-UK achieved during our latest emergency preparedness practise exercise, performed to assure the safety of our employees, visitors, contractors and members of the public.

In this special education edition, Managing Director, Ben Williams continues the emergency preparedness narrative and talks about the lessons he’s learnt on the related subject of chronic unease and the part it plays in avoiding industrial safety risk complacency in high hazard industries:

Safety leadership 

“EPC-UK’s company culture is one that is led from the top and prioritises occupational and process safety at every level of the business. As a safety leader, I have an important role to play in ensuring that I constantly recognise and respect that our company operates within a hazardous industry. I recently read a highly informative article in RISKWorld that resonated with my own view that, as a High Reliability Organisation, EPC-UK’s operations may have the potential to realise large-scale risk and harm; however, our effective leadership and culture of trust, together with dedication to constantly improving safety, means we succeed in minimising the risk of error on a daily basis. It’s an achievement that couldn’t be realised without our commitment to teamwork, awareness of potential risks, and constant desire to maximise improvement. I feel passionately about prioritising safety, and over the course of my career within this vital and hazardous industry, I have learned never to be complacent, despite the rare occurrence of crisis incidents.

In this special education issue of Onsite, I’d like to talk about chronic or what is seen as a “healthy” unease within our operating environment, and what I’ve learned about its importance within my leadership methodology as I work to improve our team’s own safety culture and performance.

Chronic unease

In business, (chronic) a healthy unease is the opposite of complacency. As the leader of EPC-UK, I can’t just assume that because we have safety systems in place, our operations will consequently run smoothly, so I must continually question whether what we do to assure everyone’s safety is enough.

In my view, a leader’s deliberate feeling of a healthy or chronic unease is not driven by a concern of risk, but the way risk is managed and controlled. It’s my role to take the lead in assessing the company’s risks and the degree of threat involved from each, based on my own perceptions and experiences. 

By bringing the principles of chronic unease into the way I lead and manage EPC-UK, I encourage myself to think with deliberate flexibility, and am reminded not to jump to conclusions. I want other employees to speak up and I ensure I listen to them when they do, striving to be receptive to bad news and continuously demonstrating my safety commitment to the team.

As a leader within a High Reliability Organisation, I never ‘forget to be afraid’, and by applying the ‘Five Attributes of Chronic Unease’ to my leadership methodology; Vigilance, Propensity to be Concerned, Deliberate Pessimism, Requisite Imagination and Flexible Thinking, I’m able to stay alert to early or weak indicators of risk, such as near misses or process safety issues. 

Never assume

By valuing an emotional tendency to worry about risk and safety, together with a personal inclination to resist complacency and even anticipate failure, I’ve become better at visualising potential worst-case scenarios and have learnt not to make assumptions. A key lesson from my predecessor was a clear spelling test on the word/phrase ass-u-me when experiencing my first serious near miss with explosive manufacturing and that has created a clear mindset in my management style. 

I ask the right questions of those within my team and have continued to learn about where any vulnerabilities may exist within our operations. I also value the importance of communicating using ways everyone can relate to, so team members can clearly understand the roles they each play in improving safety management. Effective lines of communication also encourage everyone to speak more openly in our culture of trust about their own safety concerns without fear of repercussion; a concept I’ve helped reinforce through the success of our STOP WORK AUTHORITY initiative.

Continuous learning

Learning and development are critical to the EPC way that helps guide us all in performing safer operations, as by learning from others and sharing information, we don’t need to keep relearning from mistakes. Even though chronic unease principles can sometimes make decision-making processes take longer, when weighed against the potential impact of complacency – a major accident – I feel that no price can be put on the ideology’s value.

Research indicates that a healthy discipline of chronic unease is a desirable state for leaders at all levels in relation to the control of risk, and I agree. It is my hope that by using chronic unease as part of my leadership methodology, EPC-UK’s culture of trust and zero harm prioritisation will continue to develop from strength to strength.” 

EPC-UK’s SPIRIT values

Safety, Passion, Integrity, Respect, Innovation and Teamwork

References

  • Managing the unexpected: Assuring high performance in an age of complexity, Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001
  • Managing the risks of organisational accidents, Reason, 1997
  • Chronic unease for safety in managers: a conceptualisation, Fruhen, Flin and McLeod, 2013.
  • Process safety, focusing on what really matters – leadership, Hackitt, 2013.

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