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Lessons from Gretley: Mindful Leadership and the Law: Book Review

Judith Stowe, PhD, Senior Project Manager

For readers who have not heard of Andrew Hopkins, this work will reveal the author’s profound understanding of the crucial role of leadership in managing occupational health and safety. Hopkins’ crystal-clear writing style paints the big picture by placing responsibility and accountability for safety at the doorstep of top management.

Andrew Hopkins, a professor at the Australian National University, is a renowned expert on process safety management (PSM) and organizational factors in industrial safety. Hopkins’ accomplishments include an array of books, articles, and papers spanning more than a decade that delve into the factors that have led to major industrial disasters. He has been involved in numerous accident investigations including consulting with the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) on the 2005 BP Texas City explosion and the 2010 Deep Water Horizon Gulf oil spill.

In this 2007 book, Lessons from Gretley, Hopkins discusses the role of top management in a 1996 mine disaster that cost the lives of four people but also involved the prosecution of mine officials for their negligence and bad judgment leading up to the disaster. These unprecedented legal decisions led to a protracted battle around the accountabilities of top management for Occupational Health and Safety and the prevention of “industrial manslaughter.” Beyond the legal issues that pervaded this accident, Hopkins speaks of leadership “mindfulness” as critical to averting similar disasters and ultimately creating the culture of an organization. He describes mindful leaders as people who constantly probe for problems, are constantly aware of the “gaps between systems in practice” in an organization and “systems in theory.” Hopkins further points out that critical communications failures are always involved in any incident, namely that information is likely to be misinterpreted, assembled incorrectly, or distorted to reflect well on the organization or events. With these as a backdrop, the mindful leader must actively strive to obtain accurate information by personally probing for it and ensuring that safety has a direct line to upper management to prevent filtering out of the “bad news.”

These concepts totally align with our experience in behavior-based safety initiatives. We repeatedly talk about the role of leaders in creating the workplace culture needed to support a BBS process. While Hopkins doesn’t speak directly to the role of BBS in any of his works, he and others hint at the distinction between the focus of process and personal safety. The message at times makes BBS efforts appear trivial, but it is this reviewer’s opinion, that when leaders are truly engaged and recognize their crucial roles in the support of safety, both initiatives can and should be integrated through their efforts. Mindful leadership is an imperative if the message is to be heard.

Lessons from Gretley is a crucial read for any leader who has even a hint as to the importance of his or her role in the prevention of industrial accidents, and perhaps more so for those who haven’t a clue. Hopkins delves deeply into the sociological and  legal ramifications of turning a blind eye, but for the sake of brevity, much of Hopkins’ powerful analysis of the mine disaster is left out of this review in order to focus on the big take-away, that of “mindful leadership.” Every page of this book is worth the read!

Judith is the Co-founder of Quality Safety Edge. She has developed and conducted seminars in Performance Management, Behavioral Safety, and Leadership Skills. Since 1990, Dr. Stowe has been the Project Manager for many of the successful safety projects for Quality Safety Edge.