The Risk Management Professional

The Risk Management Professional

The picture at the top of this page is of Admiral Rickover (1900-1986), often referred to as father of the nuclear navy. The ships he controlled were powered by nuclear reactors and were often armed with nuclear missiles. He knew that the first accident with a nuclear ship would also be the last accident - there would be no tolerance for mistakes or accidents of any kind. The stringent standards that he imposed regarding both nuclear safety and personnel selection have been a critical factor in the navy's continuing record of zero reactor accidents.

The process and energy industries are not so sensitive to the consequence of one event. Nevertheless, these industries can learn much from the nuclear navy, and also from other industries such as civilian nuclear power, aerospace and the reliability of electronics systems.

Rickover is very quotable. The following, for example, could apply the control of any process facility.

[A] principle for managing a successful program is to resist the natural human inclination to hope things will work out, despite evidence or doubt to the contrary. It is not easy to admit that what you thought was correct did not turn out that way. If conditions require it, one must face the facts and brutally make needed changes despite considerable costs and schedule delays.

The discipline of process risk management covers a wide variety of topics ranging from highly technical issues, such as vapor dispersion and fault tree analysis, to management systems, human behavior and understanding regulations to operations such as starting up a refinery. No single person can be an expert in all of these areas but an effective risk management professional has a sufficient understanding of them all and understands how they relate to one another.

This page discusses some of the attributes of the ideal risk management professional, whether he or she be a direct employee, contract worker or a consultant. Additional attributes for a consultant in this area are described in The Risk Management Consultant.

Education and Certification

There is no formal process risk management discipline, analogous to chemical engineering or business studies, nor is there is no single educational, work or professional background that is shared by risk management professionals, largely because they often start working in this area toward the latter half of their careers, having had many years of diverse experience in operations, design and engineering in a wide range of industries.

Most risk management professionals have a technical education - often in engineering or environmental science. Such an education provides the necessary skills to handle the technical and quantitative aspects of the work, particularly with regard to the analysis of risk, fires and explosions and gas dispersion.

Technical Knowledge

The risk management professional should have a thorough understanding of the many technical topics that the discipline covers. No one can be an expert in all of the technical areas that make us risk analysis, but he or she should possess enough knowledge of them in order to develop the correct parameters for risk analyses and to understand the findings and reports that the experts provide. It is also important to be numerate and to be comfortable working with numbers. Risk management involves quantitative topics such as gas dispersion modeling, the development of F-N curves and the use of Boolean algebra.

Holistic

A person who thinks and works holistically is not limited to a single, narrow detailed specialized sphere; instead he or she has a broad grasp of management, technical and human systems, and how they interact with one another. This does not mean that the professional has to be an expert in everything - such a goal is obviously unrealistic, but it does mean that he or she needs to have a working knowledge of multifarious topics, and to have a comprehension as to how they fit together. The phrase, "jack of all trades, but master of none", is usually considered pejorative. However, with regard to the risk management professional, it is a sensible job description.

Communication Skills

Risk management professionals spend much of their time communicating with others in a variety of ways such as writing reports, listening to client needs, delivering presentations and listening to anecdotes. Hence the risk management professional must be a good speaker, writer, listener and reader.

Writing

Much of the discussion in these posts has been to do with the importance of writing well - process safety professionals often have to write reports based on tasks and projects such as hazards analyses, incident investigations and prestartup reviews. These reports need to be clear, succinct and readable. 

Reading

Most discussions to do with communications focus on the importance of writing well - specifically of writing to the audience's level of comprehension.

Yet writing well is not sufficient. It is equally important that the reader of the report actually knows how to read. (It is often assumed that, if a written report fails to communicate its message, then the writer has a problem and needs to improve his or her technique. But another response to the difficulty is that maybe the reader needs to improve his or her reading skills.)

Now, in this context the word 'read' does not mean the ability to understand written statements such as "Reverse flow could cause corrosion of the impeller of Pump, P-101". It means understanding the underlying causes of the problem and developing an understanding of management system failures; reading well will help identify hidden messages.

In the year 2000 Yale Professor Harold Bloom (b. 1930) published the book How to Read and Why. Although his book is directed to those reading classical literature some of his thoughts and insights can be applied to the more banal activity of reading process safety reports.

His aphorism, "Clear your mind of cant" is particularly important. Cant means, "Monotonous talk filled with platitudes" or "Hypocritically pious language". The safety business is prone to such platitudes and to pious language. For example, when discussing a major incident that has killed and injured many people it is common to use the word 'tragedy' when describing the event. And of course it is a tragedy - for those affected personally. But for people who were not involved in the event in any way use of the word "tragedy" often seems to be somewhat sanctimonious. It is probably best simply to use the word "incident".

More broadly, Bloom's advice can mean simply "Clear your mind", as discussed in Safety Moment #22: Clear Your Mind of Cant.

For example, a report to do with a Prestartup Safety Review may state, "The start up of the modified system could not proceed because a safety-critical pressure gauge downstream of Pump, P-101A had not been installed".

The plant manager on reading this may react in a 'prejudiced' manner by stating that he always knew that the company that makes that type of gauge was not to be trusted. But a deeper reading of the report may proceed as follows.

  • The safety-critical pressure gauge was not installed.
    Why not?
  • The gauge had been delivered on time but it had been put in the wrong location in the facility warehouse.
    Why?
  • The warehouse manager was on vacation and her substitute did not understand the parts data base system.
    Why not?
  • No one in the warehouse has ever received formal training.
    Why not?
  • Because the process safety training program is directed just to line operators and maintenance personnel.

A deep reading of just one sentence has led to useful process safety insights.

Industrial Experience

There is really no substitute for industrial experience. It is one thing to learn about a topic from books and articles, and by reviewing incidents that have occurred elsewhere, but it is quite another to actually learn from the school of hard knocks. Industrial experience includes not only a hands-on knowledge of industrial processes and equipment, but also an understanding of the realities of client/consultant relationships, the resistance that managers have toward spending money on safety, problems at the management/union interface and how government agencies actually enforce regulations.

Knowledge of Past Events

Sherlock Holmes Dr. Watson
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

The risk management professional should know about incidents and events (both good and bad) that have occurred in other companies and locations. He or she can use these events to understand and identify patterns in current operations.

The importance of understanding the past is illustrated with regard to (the fictional) Dr. Watson?s ruminations as to what new friend Sherlock Holmes does for a living, not long after they first meet. Watson summarizes Holmes' attributes. The list includes the following statement:

< knowledge of . . .> Sensational Literature - Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.

So it is for the risk management professional; he or she should possess an "immense knowledge" of incidents that have occurred and what lessons can be drawn from them.

In this context it is interesting to note that the recently released proposed update to the OSHA PSM standard relies heavily on actual incidents. Almost all of the proposed changes are justified by showing how such changes could have helped prevent the cited incident.

Professional Involvement

Risk management professionals should be involved in their community. This is usually done by working with professional societies or independent trade organizations, often by helping with the organization of meetings, editing papers and articles, and writing technical standards. Reasons for being involved include the following:

  • It is a way for experienced professionals to give back to their community and to help young people who are entering the field.
  • Development of personal reputation and contacts within the community that could lead to more interesting and rewarding work and assignments.
  • Enhancement of the reputation for the company or organization that the professional works for.
  • The writing of articles and papers requires the author to carry out thorough research on the topic about which he or she is writing.
  • Helping others to prepare and publish their work increases the knowledge and skills of all parties.

Network

A well-known proverb states, "It's not what you know, it's who you know". This proverb is only half correct - technical knowledge and personal skills are vital to any professional. Yet it is important to maintain a network of qualified contacts. In particular, when an expert is has to address a challenging problem it is useful to have someone to call who can help out as a friend and colleague.

The Resume / CV

The expert's knowledge, skills and attributes are summarized in his or her or resum? or curriculum vitae (CV).

It is critical that the resume be accurate and verifiable, especially with regard to statements, such as the possession of advanced degrees, or major work experience. Accuracy of the resume is particularly important when the risk management professional is involved in litigation. He or she must expect to have his qualifications challenged because, if the resume can be discredited, then the expert's statements can be discredited also.

Many professionals fail to keep their resumes up to date. It is a good idea to check it and modify as needed every three months or so, particularly when new types of work or project are being carried out.

Level of Detail

An expert's resume can become very lengthy because he or she is likely to have years of experience in a wide range of tasks and projects. Such length has its drawbacks - it can make the resume difficult to read and lacking in focus. For this reason it is often a good idea to have a short (say half page) summary at the beginning supplemented by an attachment that provides the detailed information.

Publications

An expert's resume is greatly enhanced if he or she has published professional papers, articles and books. Books, in particular, can make a very strong impact - the risk management professional can say, "I wrote the book on that. Here it is!"

Involvement with professional societies, as discussed in the previous section, also looks very good on the resume.

Gaps / Negative Facts

After many years of work experience, no one will have a perfect work record. Everyone's career hits the occasional bump in the road. In particular, there will often be gaps in the work record for the times that the professional was unemployed or was trying to land new contracts. These gaps can be filled with information to do with background work such as the preparation of seminars or professional papers, or with time spent on continuing education.

Multiple Resumes

Some risk management professionals have multiple resumes, with each version emphasizing particular qualities. For example, one version may stress say design experience, whereas another may place a greater emphasis on field operational work.

Although this practice may help in specific situations, it is generally best not to have more than one resume. This is particularly true with respect to litigation work because an opposing attorney may use the two documents to demonstrate that the witness is not to be trusted, particularly if the professional appears to have a plaintiff resume and a defendant resume.

Declining Experience

One of the traps that experts can fall into is that, if they fail to keep up with the latest knowledge and practice in their field, they may not really be qualified to help a client in an area that is shown on their resume. The expert may fail to recognize that his or her knowledge and judgment is out of date.

A related problem is that some process risk experts may have worked for just one company for the duration of their careers. On retirement they seek to become consultants with other companies, but find that their deep, but narrow, experience can be quite limiting.

Copyright © Ian Sutton. 2018. All Rights Reserved.