Advancing a culture of safety

2015 American Institute of Chemical Engineers Annual Gala: Leading the Way to a Safer World 
New York City, New York

rex tillerson
Rex W. Tillerson

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Speech Nov. 3, 2015

Advancing a culture of safety

Well, it is an honor to receive this award for excellence in process safety. I’m very mindful as Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corporation that I have the opportunity to stand before groups like this and receive very nice awards - but I am also mindful that all I am really doing is representing the men and women of the ExxonMobil Corporation. Seventy-five thousand of them that work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year in some pretty tough places around the world to supply energy and the products that people need in their daily lives to sustain this quality of life that we all enjoy here - but also to help many millions of people around the world lift themselves out of poverty. I have a few of my ExxonMobil colleagues with me tonight, particularly from our chemical business and I appreciate if they’d stand and be recognized. 

At ExxonMobil, we truly do believe there is both a moral and a business imperative to operate safely. For industry this moral imperative is our first and foremost responsibility to, of course, protect lives, starting with the lives of our employees but also those of our contractors and extending that to the public at large. The moral imperative for safe operations also means being wise and careful stewards of the environment. It means protecting against environmental impacts and property damage in the surrounding communities that might result from emissions, spills, fires and explosions. 

We also believe there is another aspect of this commitment and that is a business imperative to safety. Simply put, the consequences of a safety incident can go beyond the tragic loss of life to affect the business itself, the value to our shareholders and even the broader economy. Safety incidents demand tremendous business and financial resources to resolve when they occur. They can disrupt a facility directly at the site and indirectly, across the entire business and across our entire industry - and when industry fails to fulfill our fundamental commitment to operate safely, it can undermine the confidence of the public and the trust of the regulators. This, too, carries far-reaching consequences. It can be extraordinarily costly in terms of new regulations and legal requirements, and it can take years or even decades to earn back that lost respect and goodwill. 

For these reasons, I have always felt that safety must be more than a priority. A lot of people say safety is a priority and that’s great to hear, but priorities can and do change. Safety has to go beyond that. It has to become a core value, one that shapes decision making at all levels - all the time. 

For ExxonMobil, this has been a long and ongoing journey. It’s a journey that has led us to seek input and forge relationships with all those who share our belief in making safety a core value. Among these friends we count the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and I thank you for your contributions on this journey. For the past 40 years, I’ve witnessed and walked ExxonMobil’s journey. I’ve seen our corporate approach to safety grow and become an example for others. Tonight, I just want to hit a few points of what we’ve learned and how we can work together to help others to see how they can make safety a core value. 

In our corporation, we have a vision of a workplace where Nobody Gets Hurt. We believe our approach to safety must be integrated into and must govern everything we do - from our planning and facility construction, to our drills and emergency responses, to the way we approach every business process on a daily basis. Ultimately, our success toward achieving our mission of Nobody Gets Hurt has to progress from engineering designs, process systems, and projects to become a hearts and minds issue. It has to be in the hearts and minds of all who embrace their part of our opportunity to change the business culture in our company. 

When I was a young engineer - 27 years old - my first supervising engineering assignment, I was a supervising gas facilities engineer in Baytown, Texas. And we had a fatality, and as the first-line supervisor I was asked to lead this investigation of this fatality. It was particularly impactful because the man’s brother was an engineering technician who worked for me. And that whole process is when I understood at that point in time that safety was not a priority, but it was a cultural value. It became one for me at that point. It made an impact on me as I went through the process of having to visit that scene and ultimately when I went with my immediate manager to visit that person’s family, and explain to them what had happened and where we had failed. 

Following the Valdez oil spill in 1990, which had a profound impact on Exxon, we set out to transform the company in the way we manage risks - not only the risk of safety, but the risk of all of our facilities, our people, and the environment, and to put that at the center of all we do. Risk management and safety would no longer be viewed as priorities but as core values. To implement that change, we developed a comprehensive system, which you heard mentioned in the introduction, we call, Operations Integrity Management System or OIMS. The standards, work practices, and regular and rigorous site assessments associated with OIMS are in place today across operations of ExxonMobil in every location around the world. No matter where you go, it will be exactly the same, the same language, the same approach. So as we move people about, they don’t have to start over and understand, Well, I wonder how they do it here? It is the same everywhere. 

Through OIMS we monitor, benchmark and measure all aspects of our safety performance, and we’re constantly reviewing and updating these standards as new data becomes available. An important element of our OIMS system is also managing any and all process changes – management of change – one of the great failings as we look at process safety incidents is the management of change. Something changed and someone forgot to tell anyone it changed. So, you have to foster an open and effective communication by ensuring those knowledge gaps do not exist. 

But OIMS is just one part of the equation. Even the best safety systems are not effective unless they’re part of a broader culture – the unwritten rules and norms that shape mindsets, attitudes, and ultimately, behaviors. It’s the hundreds and thousands of decisions that people make every day, every hour, every minute. It only takes one decision to change lives. 

OIMS is inspired by the belief that leadership drives culture and culture drives behavior. Leaders influence culture by setting expectations, building structure, teaching others, and demonstrating stewardship. That is why the first element of our OIMS system is management, leadership and accountability. But management alone cannot and should not be the only ones contributing. For a culture of safety to flourish, it must be embedded throughout the organization. Therefore, our safety leadership comes not just from supervisors and managers, but from our employees and importantly, our contractors at every level. 

Of course, as ExxonMobil has traveled on this safety journey over the years, we’ve learned that encouraging a culture of safety means working beyond the bounds of our corporation in reaching out to educate and protect contractors, business partners and importantly, the communities at which we operate. 

For this reason, we appreciate the thoughtful efforts and approaches being explored by AIChE. We’ve already heard tonight about the great importance of process safety education at the undergraduate level and the efforts underway to improve it, and we’re proud to support AIChE’s efforts and other programs that advance safety research and education, including the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M and the Purdue Process Safety Assurance Center. Advancing safety is a collective effort, and it’s a constant one. It demands the attention and action of all of our companies, our employees, and universities and it’s strengthened by professional organizations such as this one tonight, which play an instrumental role in identifying and communicating best practices from workplace to workplace, organization to organization. 

And I thank all of you here tonight for your support and for your dedication to improving safety. Our shared goal in this effort is clear, Together, we’re working to build a future where nobody – at any company, anywhere – gets hurt. It’s a goal worthy of the lives of the workers, communities and environment under our care. It’s a goal worthy of the trust placed in us by our shareholders, elected leaders, and by our fellow citizens. 

So, I thank you again for this recognition tonight. I do want to say a brief word to the students that are here. First, God bless you for deciding to be chemical engineers. You know the only problem with chemical engineers are we just don’t have enough of them, and so you’re going to have a great future ahead of you. I want you to remember a couple of things that I have found to be really important to being successful. First, recognize the most important asset you own is your professional engineering integrity and your personal integrity. No one gives that to you. It’s just yours, and it’s very easy to lose it when you enter the professional world. I promise you, you are going to get challenged and whatever you do, hang on to that professional integrity and that personal integrity, because if you ever give it up, it is extremely hard to regain it. So, when someone pushes you on that, you just stand strong. You know what is right; you know what is wrong. You make the right decision and I promise you, you are going to be successful. 

Thank you!

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