Safety Moment #24: Where Then Shall (Process Safety) Wisdom Be Found?

Process Safety wisdom

Last week we quoted the Yale professor, Harold Bloom in the post Clear Your Mind of Cant. This week we cite him again,

Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?

Or, in our case,

Where shall process safety wisdom be found? 

Another modern sage, Warren Buffet, once said,

Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.

For those of us in the process safety business his statement begs the questions, “How do we know what we are doing?”

I suggest that our knowledge and expertise comes from three sources. They are:

  1. Direct education or book learning;
  2. Understanding the management principles of process safety; and
  3. Practical experience.

All three are needed — as logicians would say, “Each is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success”.

1. Direct Education

The first source of knowledge — direct education — is the simplest to define and understand. For example, if a hazards analysis team questions the capacity of a pressure safety relief valve then someone with an education in fluid flow can calculate the rating of that valve and determine if it meets requirements or not.

Direct education is also needed when responding to regulatory requirements. Someone who needs to know if their system is in compliance with a regulation or standard simply needs to read the relevant documents and apply them to the current situation.

The growth of the Internet in recent years has vastly increased the amount of information that is available. In this environment what is needed is not more information per se but the ability to sort through and digest this information. The challenge is: how do we sort and organize the vast amount of technical information that is available to us, recognizing that most of that information is repetitious and occasionally misleading, but also recognizing that there are some gems out there?

2. Process Safety Management

The phrase Process Safety Management (PSM) generally conjures up an image of a management system consisting of a dozen or so elements such as Management of Change, Process Hazards Analysis and Operating Procedures.

PSM programs are largely built up on the experience of seasoned professionals who summarize the lessons that they have learned throughout their career into practical guidance. So, for example, they understand that many incidents occurred because process conditions were changed without proper control or oversight. Based on their insights and experiences these professionals will develop the framework for a Management of Change program. Or they may recognize that inadequate training can lead to problems so they develop the framework of a generic training program.

Process safety programs are mature. For example, the OSHA standard was promulgated in the year 1992, so it is now a generation old. Indeed, it is older than many of the people now entering the energy and process industries. Therefore, although there will always be opportunities for improving these programs and for implementing them more effectively, the bigger opportunity for improving safety and profitability is in finding ways of capturing and transmitting industrial, “real life” experience to those who are new to the business.

3. Practical Experience

Education and an understanding of management principles are a vital and necessary part of any process safety management program. But they are not sufficient because they are general in nature — they cannot cover the details of every situation; they cannot provide specific guidance for specific situations.

People who have worked at a facility or in a design office for many years generally have a good, almost intuitive, understanding of what works and what doesn’t. They have learned from their own mistakes and from the mistakes of the people with whom they work. They are graduates from the School of Hard Knocks.

Experience enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again. 

One large energy/chemical company demonstrated this insight in a rather clever manner. When a young professional first entered that company, no matter what their job was, who their boss was, and regardless of the tasks to which they were assigned — their paycheck said, “Training Department”. This was a neat way for the company to tell its new employees that they were not actually making a contribution because they knew very little about what they were doing in the “real world”.

Industrial, practical experience includes not only a hands-on knowledge of industrial processes and equipment but also how to work with colleagues, subordinates and bosses; understanding the realities of client/consultant/contractor relationships; the resistance that managers can have toward spending money on safety; problems at the management/union interface; and how government agencies actually enforce regulations. In the words of the bumper sticker, “There’s no substitute for knowing what you’re doing”.

When these three forms of knowledge and experience are combined then we will indeed the wisdom that Bloom talks about, as shown in the sketch Venn diagram at the top of this post.

In the next series of safety moments we will focus on the theme of developing wisdom, with a particular emphasis on the Practical Experience element.

There’s no substitute for knowing what you’re doing
Bumper Sticker