While many companies understand that good management requires senior managers to spend time with frontline workers, the challenge is to make productive use of these visits, according to The Australian National University's Professor Andrew Hopkins.
Safety is often a focus for senior managers (or "VIPs") who are visiting a worksite, but too often safety is understood to be a matter of "slips, trips and falls", rather than the major hazards that can lead to major accidents, said Hopkins in a recent National Research Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Regulation paper.
In the paper, he examines this issue in the context of a VIP visit made to the Deepwater Horizon rig by senior managers from BP and from the rig owner, Transocean, just hours before the explosion.
Despite their best of intentions, Hopkins makes the case that these managers fell into the trap identified above.
He said the informal auditing activities of the VIP group on Deepwater Horizon were limited because they tended to focus on conditions rather than behaviour, partly in order to avoid disrupting ongoing activities.
"This meant that the VIPs avoided looking in detail at the behaviour of people who were engaged in well operations that afternoon," he said.
Secondly, the focus of safety for these VIPs, as well for their companies, was on managing conventional safety hazards and not major process safety hazards.
"Again, this diverted the group's attention from the operations that were underway. Had the VIP group not been limited in these ways it is very possible that they would have identified some of the mistakes and non-compliances that were occurring at the time of their visit, and intervened in such a way as to prevent the accident," said Hopkins in the paper, Management Walk-Arounds: Lessons from the Gulf of Mexico Oil Well Blowout.
In order to avoid such traps, he said that one very important activity is to talk to employees in such as way to elicit from them information about what might be going wrong.
"Very often they are the ones who know best that something is amiss," he said.
"But just as importantly, senior executives need to engage in their own informal auditing, making sure to sample the detail."