This is part four in our Safety matters series, where we’ll be discussing a number of key safety issues in Canada’s oil and gas industry.

What causes major incidents such as oil spills or explosions? According to Andrew Hopkins, emeritus professor of sociology at Australian National University in Canberra, many major incidents happen not because of big mistakes, but because warning signs were dismissed. Hopkins explained that there could be several reasons for this, including:

  • Warning signs are ambiguous or subject to multiple interpretations.
  • Warnings are intermittent, so they’re easy to ignore.
  • Warnings become normalized if there are automatic safeguards in place. The warning signs then become accepted as normal, when in fact those safeguards are designed as a last resort, not a standard procedure.


Compounding this are some behavioural or attitudinal factors which can combine to pave the way for accidents:

  • A culture of denial, which enables people to reassure themselves that everything will be okay.
  • The onus of proof. If the person reporting a warning sign can’t prove that it poses a risk then it is dismissed, but the onus of proof should actually be on the person trying to show that there is no danger.
  • Groupthink. No-one has the courage to step away from the group and insist that there might be a risk.


To learn what Hopkins has to say about these behavioural factors, read this culture of denial post.

“To ensure that warning signs are never ignored, management needs to put reporting systems in place, and encourage workers to speak up,” he added.

Personal safety versus process safety

In addressing the risk of major incidents, “we must also make the distinction between personal safety and process safety,” said Hopkins. Process safety deals with the system rather than individuals; it requires a blend of engineering safeguards, as well as leadership that designs and enforces strict safety protocols.

“But major hazards are rare, so companies don’t tend to focus on them. They are more likely to place emphasis on personal safety,” he said.

Stay tuned – in an upcoming post we’ll be exploring personal safety and process safety.

Check out these previous posts in our Safety matters series:

Part 1: Fighting fatigue
Part 2: New worker safety
Part 3: The dangers of a culture of denial