The holy grail of process safety – Closing the gap between theory and practice

Guest blog by Simon Pollard from Evolution Compliance and Management Solutions Ltd. 

Whilst on a rare family hike in the Dales, an uncle I’d not seen for some time asked me what it was I was doing for a living as he’d heard I’d left what he perceived to be a secure employee role to pursue a path in a freelance capacity under my own steam. As the beautiful Yorkshire scenery rolled by under a baking sun, I found myself in an interesting conversation explaining the basic concepts of process safety to an ex-Tornado weapons technician from the historically monumental RAF 617 Squadron. He understood the principle of taking deliberate action to prevent catastrophic incidents and mitigate loss.

Later that night in the bar, one of my cousins pointed out that he’d overheard our conversation earlier that day but was still unsure as to what it was that I actually did. My cousin worked on the shop floor for a large engineering company and, like me, had hands-on experience working within the power generation industry at various power stations, and so I was surprised he didn’t get process safety in a more fundamental way since my perception was there was a generally high level of process safety awareness within the industry. After further explanation, this time using more colloquial language, I could see that he was still none the wiser. In fact, it was clear to me he wasn’t engaged with the underlying principles at all; something which he subsequently proved by concluding “it sounds like management BS to me…” I found this fascinating.

Looking back I had similarly felt a gap

In the days that followed, his statement caused me to reflect on what I could learn from him and speculate on the circumstances which may have led to him forming his belief. What I realized was that for him he didn’t see the connection between what he did on a day-to-day basis and what I was conveying to him on a more theoretical level. Looking back I could then recognize several times in my own career when I similarly had felt a gap between what I now intellectually know process safety to be, and how I felt it at the time in my various day-to-day roles. It wasn’t until a friend and colleague was badly injured through an incident at work in 2004 (a story for another time) that I started to get a real insight into what process safety was in the real world and I made it a personal priority to do whatever I could to make sure that nobody else was hurt at work by the process ever again and so my embryonic process safety journey began, (although I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time). 14 years and many diverse and interesting roles later, what it means to deliver process safety is now crystal clear to me. For my cousin, sat in the pub enjoying a pint after an 11-mile hike, it clearly wasn’t.

The lesson I learned that day

My cousin actually gifted me a valuable lesson that day. Nowadays when I work with people around process safety I help them see there are two fundamental aspects to consider, neither of which can be overlooked:

  • What they understand to be the right things to do to around any given hazard scenario and how they describe how they’ll go about delivering them; and
  • What they actually do and the evidence they have to know they continue to be the right things

The former is what’s written down in an organization’s management system, contained within their policies, standards, processes, and procedures; the latter is what everyone throughout the organization does as part of their core role to make sure what’s written down in the management system happens so that design integrity, operational integrity and asset integrity are maintained on an ongoing basis. With resources being continually stretched, it’s important to know you’re getting the biggest return for effort and that whatever is being done adds real value.

Bowtie: the method that supports this approach

One of the most valuable tools I have discovered over the years to be able to convey this is the use of BowTie Diagrams to delve into an organization’s arrangements using Barrier Analysis techniques and visually represent what people are doing as part of their daily activities to contribute toward the overall delivery of process safety. In order to decide what the right things are to do, you first of all have to consciously look into the various systems and processes around a particular hazard scenario and deliberately pull out safety-critical aspects for further scrutiny. Drilling further and further down it is possible to then form a view not only of who in the organization is responsible to making sure each aspect performs as expected but also what is done on a day-to-day basis to ensure this is the case, and, ultimately, who delivers each task. BowTie Diagrams also allow the various aspects of the management system to be mapped against the activities and in doing so not only do any gaps in both sides become apparent but also the people ultimately performing the tasks can see why their role is so important and how they contribute toward the overall prevention of harm to people, the environment or damage to their assets. In my experience, it’s a proven and powerful way to engage the entire organization in process safety.

“Process safety is not delivered by one person, or a select few – It is a genuine team effort”.

How I would answer my cousin now

If I could turn back the clock to that evening in the pub and I was asked again by my cousin what it was I did, with hindsight I would approach my answer differently. I’d ask him whether he and everyone around him in his team were clear on what could go wrong in their organization. I’d ask him if he knew what had been deliberately put in place to prevent those things from happening. I’d ask him if he knew how what he did specifically in his day-to-day activities contributed towards those arrangements working and how confident everyone in his organization was that those arrangements would work when they were relied upon. I’d tell him that what I do is I help people, no matter what position they hold in an organization, to answer “yes” to those questions, both right now in the present moment and at any time in the future. That’s the Holy Grail of process safety I’ve been working on for the last 14 years which I’ve now made it my business to achieve. That’s what I’d tell him I do.

The author: Simon Pollard

Simon is the director of Evolution Compliance and Management Solutions Ltd. He has over 26 years’ experience in different industry sectors in various capacities, from roots as a craft apprentice through various hands-on engineering, operations, QHSE and management positions. He believes in making small, incremental, evolutionary steps toward a goal and that success for an organization is an outcome of a mixture of robust, sustainable systems, processes and tools being delivered by a team of energized, empowered and competent people with the strengths of relationships underpinning every achievement. He can be reached at simon.pollard@evolutioncms.co.uk

2018-09-04T13:22:48+00:00Blog|

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