Safety Moment #8: “But We’re Different, You Know”

Supercilious attitude

During the course of my career I have had the opportunity and privilege of working in many different sections of the energy and process industries. And wherever I have worked the refrain has always been, “But we’re different, you know”. What the speaker is saying is that his or her particular industry is so special that the professionals in it have little to learn from other industries regarding process safety. In all cases my reply has been, “No you’re not.”

I have experienced this “we’re different, you know” attitude in recent years when working with professionals in the railroad business. Their business, like all others, has its unique features — particularly the risks to do with trains striking vehicles or people on the tracks. Yet, the worst case scenario for a freight railroad is not to do with train/vehicle collisions; it is to do with the release of a highly hazardous chemical from a tank car. Yet there seems to be little interest in picking up on the risk management techniques that are routinely used in the process industries. Their unspoken message was, “Railroads are different, you know”. No they’re not.

Fundamentally, process safety management is about management — it is not about specific technologies or industries. For example, if a manager develops and implements an effective Management of Change program then it is likely that he or she will find that his expertise applies to a broad range of facilities. Similarly with hazards analysis; different technologies will use different methods. For example, a factory that makes discrete components may find that the Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) technique is the most useful, whereas someone in in oil refinery may gain the most from a Hazard and Operability Study (HAZOP). But, regardless of the technique that is selected, the principles of risk analysis (identification of the hazard, an assessment of likelihood and consequence and an evaluation of safeguards) remain the same.

Indeed, not only do different industries have much in common, they can learn from one another by looking at looking at how other industries have managed issues that are similar, but not the same, as they experience.

Different Industries

The above comments do not mean that each industry in the process and energy businesses do not have their own special features — some of which are identified below.

  • Oil Refineries are capable of very flexible operations — I once had a technician tell me that he could put gasoline in the refinery manager’s coffee cup just by opening and closing valves. And I believe him.
  • Offshore personnel have to fight fires with what they have — they cannot call on an outside fire department to help them. And there are no easy escape routes in the event of a large fire.
  • Chemical Plants are often very sensitive to small amounts of contamination in the feedstocks. And they typically have to handle highly corrosive chemicals through the use of exotic materials of construction.
  • Onshore Pipelines that transport oil and gas are mostly in the public domain. Therefore any leak is automatically an environmental concern.

(Discussion to do with the Energy and Process Industries is provided at the Article with that title.)

Cross-Industry Learnings

Fukushimi-Daiichi lessons for the process industries

The Fukushima-Daiichi catastrophe provides examples of lessons that can be used in industries that have nothing to do with nuclear power, or even power generation.

First, the presence of backup systems is of new value in the face of a “common cause” event, i.e., a single cause that can two or more supposedly independent systems to fail. For those familiar with Fault Tree terminology, it’s an example of incorrectly assuming the integrity of an ‘AND’ Gate. (Common cause issues are discussed in Safety Moment #9: Let’s Not Make Common Cause and in the Article Two Too Many Common Causes.)

Second, the concept of “Fail Dangerous” vs. “Fail Safe” is well illustrated. Yet, were one to ask if the manager of a drilling rig to whether the facility is “fail safe” or “fail dangerous” the question would probably draw a blank look. But the reality is that offshore drilling is (mostly) “fail dangerous” whereas offshore production is (mostly) “fail safe”.