Public opinion can turn on a tweet, says judge

Simplicity is your friend and complexity your enemy when it comes to workplace health and safety, the Hon Sir Charles Haddon-Cave told 3,500 oil and gas executives in Australia this month.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, Sir Charles gave a sobering account of the fatal crash of an RAF Nimrod reconnaissance plane in Afghanistan in 2006, which killed 14 military personnel.

In his understated, yet powerful, address, the High Court judge said there were no new accidents, only lessons to be learned.

In his review of the Nimrod disaster, Sir Charles uncovered a fundamental failure of leadership, culture and priorities at the British Ministry of Defence. He observed that senior military staff “worshipped at the altar of complexity and constant change”, which generated a culture of "paper safety", instead of real safety.

Sir Charles warned the oil and gas industry to avoid the three comfort blankets of complexity, compliance and consensus when dealing with safety matters. Dissenting voices should be encouraged, not silenced via consensus, he said.

Of note to communicators was Sir Charles’ comments about the financial and reputational costs of major health and safety disasters like the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. In such instances, he said, “public opinion can turn on a tweet”.

The current age of instant communications, coupled with the consumer age and a litigious culture presented particular challenges for the oil and gas industry with its ageing equipment. As such, the leadership of its health and safety and its public image would be more important than ever.

Sir Charles implored energy executives to be risk sensible, as opposed to risk ignorant, risk cavalier or risk averse.

He also urged a commitment to four “paradigm principles” of leadership, independence, people and simplicity, or LIPS, as opposed to blind faith in rules.

Above all, he said, simplicity, not complexity, was the key to leading and managing safety – a message that applies equally to communications.

Raphael Hilbron heads SenateSHJ's energy practice.