Exxon CEO on death: ‘It makes a big impression on you’

Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., sat down for an exclusive interview with FuelFix on Tuesday, hours before receiving a safety award from the National Safety Council. Here is the full interview, which covered the topic of safety, including threats of computer security, human behavior and the pipeline spill in Arkansas.

FuelFix: How have you personally been influenced to place a focus on safety at Exxon Mobil?

Rex Tillerson: Well, I am getting on 38 years with the corporation. I started out in engineering and was very deeply involved in operations for the early part of my career. Operations being drilling wells, running natural gas processing plants, working offshore, things like that. Fairly early on in one of my early assignments, I was a facilities engineering supervisor and we had a fatality. And I had to lead the investigation for that fatality and you’ll hear me mention it in the speech tonight. That has a big impression on you when you are 27 years old and you realize people get killed with the things we do. And when you have to go talk to someone’s family about that, it makes a big impression on you. I think that experience was the earliest experience I had where suddenly i had this awareness that we’re managing a lot of risk out here. That’s really what it is about is it’s about managing risk: Recognizing the risk, mitigating the risk, managing, because you can’t eliminate the risk from what we do. It’s a risky business.

FF: What was happening when you working on that project? What happened that led to the fatality?

Tillerson: We had a well, out here actually in Galveston Bay, that a gentleman was working on and the flow line parted– a high pressure well — it struck him, threw him into the water and he drowned.

FF: What is the difference between how Exxon Mobil reacted then and how it would react if that happened today?

Tillerson: It’s interesting that it wasn’t because people back then were not keenly committed to working safely, protecting people. We had extensive safety manuals. We had safety rules. We had procedures. We had regular safety meetings. So the company was very committed to safety at that time. What’s really changed since then — and this was an outgrowth of the Valdez oil spill incident — is when Valdez occurred here was something that had a massive impact on us and it was a very simple mistake that somebody made. You know, the guy driving the boat got out of the lane, hit the reef and huge, huge consequences. And the leadership of the corporation at that time, I think, and all of us were affected profoundly by it, to say gosh how can something so simple happen? And as we looked at how we managed risk and it was really around risk management, we realized we train people, we give them rules, we give them procedures and then we just kind of expect people to follow those. Well, so much of safe operations risk management, it’s much more comprehensive than that.

And so we took what we call a systems approach to it, developed the Operations Integrity Management System, which is now over 20 years in existence. It has been constantly improved over the years, but it gives you a whole system, a holistic systems approach to how you manage the risk environment that you are in. It helps you in identifying the risk, it helps you in ensuring that you’ve addressed and understand all of the risk and ensures that you are preparing people for managing that risk and it includes how to deal with things when they go wrong. What that systems approach really did, though, was the implementation of it took us several years and what it really did was it changed the way people inside of Exxon Mobil thought about risk, managed risk and therefore thought about safety. And it became very personal.

And that’s the journey we’re still on with understanding why do things still go wrong. And you look at them and most of the time they’re preventable. It’s people making the wrong decision. Why did they make that? So now we’re very much at a level of understanding behavior. Human behavior: Why people accept certain risk. Why do they accept it? And then whey do they go ahead and act on it even though it’s them themselves that are most at risk? It’s kind of like people texting while driving. People know it’s dangerous, but why do they do it? Not going to happen to me. So a lot of where our journey has taken us now is a place where we are very much at the individual personal behavior level, but we couldn’t have started there. We had to spend all of this time on this process internally for people to understand that we as a corporation and the leadership of the corporation, we were serious about this. We were serious about changing. We were serious about doing whatever it took. And now it allows us to get to the point where you know we’re serious. Now we’re serious about you. You as the individual. We’re very serious about you protecting yourself and in doing so you’ll protect everyone around you.

FF: What role does computer security play in keeping your operations safe?

Tillerson: There are all kinds of risks you are managing around systems, from information lost, critical information that could be lost, to process control operations that could be interrupted. So, for us, and as everyone knows, the emerging issue of cyber security has become extraordinarily important. We identified it actually some time back and so we have been taking steps now for a long time to secure our systems and our networks and protect both our information, but also to protect our process control systems as well. That, in itself, would be a critical risk within computers and technology. But I would also say, set the cyber security risk aside — the risk of someone outside intervening. When you introduce new technology it still has to be managed by people. So people have to understand that technology. They have to understand its capabilities and, more importantly, they have to understand its limitations. So as technology continues to be advanced and introduced into everything that we do, whether it’s computer-related or some other capability, people are still the interface with that technology. So you have to continue to manage the person. At the end, it all comes back to people, regardless of how great the technology is and regardless of how much the technology enables us to do things without the human hand maybe touching as much. And in many ways it does help us mitigate risk, it never takes the risk away though.

FF: So since a major issue related to the safety of these systems involves people, you are saying that your guidelines for safety in other operations will help with keeping these systems safe as well?

Tillerson: As you introduce new technology, the applications of our operations integrity management system protocols causes you to look at that technology look at how it’s going to be used and identify the risks that are associated with that technology. Often times that risk does exist at the human interface. As good as this technology is, you still are requiring people to ensure its proper application.

FF: Are there things you’re doing to wake your employees up to the fact that simple things that they do could place these systems at risk?

Tillerson: It’s a constant dialogue, so to speak. I can tell you that, out at our operations, every day begins with a discussion around what is it we’re going to do today and what are the risks that we need to really be concerned about and how are we going to manage those. We call them toolbox talks to lunch box talks. If you go to a drilling rig or you go to a refinery or you go to any of our facilities, you’ll find every day people start the day with that conversation with the team that they are working with, because it’s not just, yes I have to take care of myself, but I also have to look after you. One of the things that we have finally made a lot of progress in getting people comfortable with is what we call intervention. Really it’s about caring for your fellow worker and for a lot of people, it’s just human nature. If i’m doing my job and someone suddenly interrupts me and says, “Oh, don’t do that. That’s not safe.” There’s a human reaction to say, “Well, this isn’t’ your job. This is my job.” And part of this journey of people understanding it’s about my behavior is not only having the courage and the will to intervene, but to really learn to be a receiver of someone who is intervening, who is really doing that because they’re trying to help you manage risk. As easy as that sounds, it’s difficult for people to accept because often times they receive it as a criticism of what they are doing. So a lot of our conversation and training has progressed to the point now where we talk to people about, look, intervention is good and when someone intervenes, think of it that this person cares so much about me that they’re taking the time to say to me, hey let’s step back a minute, let’s relook at this.

FF: How does Exxon Mobil use technology to make its operations safer?

Tillerson: Technology has enabled us to mitigate and manage a lot of risk. To a much more advanced stage. Whether it’s from the way we drill wells — You’ve probably been on rigs and if you look at what used to happen on a rig floor even 10 or 15 years ago and you look at what happens today with all of the technology and automation, joystick manipulations that are done, that has really protected a lot of people on that rig floor because they can stand back out of the way of a lot of heavy pieces of equipment. Well the same is true whether you are drilling or whether you are operating processes. Now, we can operate processes through computer actuation of valves. We don’t have a person go out and actually stand there and be exposed to that risk. So what it’s really allowed us to do is reduce the risk. It’s allowed us to mitigate the consequences if something did go wrong because we don’t have people as exposed. As I said, in risk management what you learn is you rarely can ever eliminate it entirely. So you really have to learn how to identify the risk and then understand how I’m going to manage that and if something does go wrong, how am I going to respond. Because often times things go wrong and if you respond properly, then the damage and the consequences can be held to a minimum, whereas if you respond improperly, this can really get out of hand and properties damaged and people are injured, or worse, they’re killed.

FF: People are going to see that you’re receiving this safety award the week after one of your oil pipelines ruptured and spilled in Arkansas. Can you comment on that?

Tillerson: We’re still learning exactly what happened. Obviously, it’s very regrettable that the pipeline rupture, spill, occurred. We’re really not sure what happened with the pipeline. I think our response has been very good. We’ve been very quick on the site and, again, I think that’s reflective of these systems I’m talking about, where we were able to be on the scene quickly. We were able to shut the flow down very quickly, and our emergency response procedures and drills — and we practice these. We practice them with local officials so that when we respond, all of the local authorities from county, city officials to federal officials, EPA, Department of Transportation, we all know exactly what everyone’s role is and they work together very well as a team. And that’s what’s happening in Arkansas.

We’ve just had tremendous coordination with the state, local and federal authorities, a lot of good cooperation. The weather has been giving us a little bit of a challenge up there because of the rain, but we believe the spill is minimal in its volume. We won’t know until we get everything picked up and it appears that it certainly inconvenienced some residents, which we’re sorry about that, but we’re helping them. we’ll restore all of the damage that they may have suffered and we’re prepared and we’ve got a procedure to begin to excavate the line so we can find out what really happened. We’re waiting on authorities to review that procedure and then they’ll give us the permission so that we can begin to uncover that. So I think it’s an example that we can’t eliminate all risks. This one, I think, was managed reasonably well, as regrettable as it is that it happened. But I am very proud of the response our people took when the line ruptured. This line was originally installed in 1940, so it’s a pretty old pipeline, although historically we’ve been able to keep these pipelines in service for decades by protecting them. So we’ll see what the cause was here, we really don’t know yet. But I’m proud of the response and I’m really proud of the coordination we’ve had with the local authorities. they’ve been very supportive in how we’ve dealt with this.