Wishing you a very Happy Christmas
The following reflections are based various things that cropped up in the last year. As always, they are in no particular order.
Let’s get this over with at the start. The pandemic has certainly caused me to think:
- Managing risks is difficult enough. Mixing in politics and public opinion magnifies this enormously;
- We have to remember what it means to be human. Restricting what we can do may reduce the immediate risk but life is for living and there has to be a balance, especially when you take into account the knock-on effects of measures taken;
- Our plans for managing crises usually assume external support and bought in services. These are far more difficult to obtain when there is a global crisis and everyone wants the same.
I have not given a great deal of thought into how these points can be applied to my work but they do give a bit of perspective and have affected many aspects of work, including management of our 'normal' risk.
I have shared my views on shift handover several times over the years and it is still something we need to improve significantly. However, this year’s pandemic has highlighted how much we rely on person to person communication in many different ways. Infection control and social distancing disrupted this greatly. Just look at how many Skype/Teams/Zoom calls you have had this year compared to last!
My concern is that companies are failing to recognise the importance of communication or the fact that a lot of it takes place informally. You can hold very successful meetings over the internet but with people working separately you miss all those chance encounters and opportunities to have a chat when passing. These are the times when more exploratory discussions take place. They are safe times when you can ask daft questions and throw in wild ideas. Even if most of the time is spent talking about the weather or football, they help you get to know your colleagues better; fostering teamwork.
I posted an article on LinkedIn to highlight the issues with communication and COVID-19, which you can access at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dont-overlook-process-safety-andy-brazier. My concern was that companies had implemented the measures they needed to handle the personal health aspects of the pandemic but were not considering the knock-of effects on communication. This is a classic management of change issue. It is easy to focus on what you want or need to do. But you always need to be aware of the unintended consequences.
Posting my article led to discussions with software company eschbach and we wrote a whitepaper together. You can download it from their website at https://www.eschbach.com/en/blog/posts/manufacturing-in-a-crisis.php
An illustration of how companies do not always think about communication has arisen when looking at shift patterns. It is quite right that risks of fatigue from working shifts have to be managed, but that is not the only concern. For 12 hour shifts a fairly standard pattern is to work 2 days, 2 nights and then have 4 days off. This is simple and does well on fatigue calculations. The first day shift rotates through the days. This means that at one part of the cycle the first day is on a Saturday and the following week it is on a Sunday. The problem is that at the weekend the day staff are not present, so if important information is missed at the handover there is no one available to fill in the gaps or answer questions.
Alternative shift patterns are available that ensure the first day shift always happens on a weekday when the day workers are also present. The patterns are bit more complicated and may involve working one or two additional shifts before having a break, so don’t score so well in the fatigue calculations. I am not saying that everyone should change to a shift pattern like that, but I am pointing out that we need to give more recognition to communication and put more effort into supporting it.
The table below shows a comparison of Standard vs an Alternative shift pattern (days of the week along the top).
Control room design
Last year’s news was the publication of the 3rd edition of EEMUA 201 “Control Rooms: A Guide to their Specification, Design, Commission and Operation.” Unfortunately, it is not available free, unless you, or your employer, are a member of EEMUA. However, a free download is now available at https://www.eemua.org/Products/Publications/Checklists/EEMUA-control-rooms-checklist.aspx that includes a high level Human Factors Integration Plan template that can be used for new or modification control room projects (actually it is not a bad template for any type of project). Also, a checklist for evaluating control rooms either at the design or operational stages. I have used the checklist a number of times this year and am pleased to confirm that it really is very effective and useful. You should really use it with the 201 guide, but even on its own the checklist shows you what to consider and it will probably be a useful way of persuading your employer to but a copy of EEMUA 201.
On the subject of control rooms I published another article on LinkedIn this year titled “Go and tidy your (Control) room.” I used COVID-19 to reinforce the message I often give my clients about the state of their control rooms. My opinion is that we need to make sure our control room operators are always at the top of their game and having a pleasant and healthy place to work can help this. Unfortunately the message often seems to fall on deaf ears. Access the article at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/go-tidy-your-control-room-andy-brazier/
Internet of Things (IoT)
This is a popular buzz word at the moment. The idea is that over the decades technology has given us more and more devices. Recently they have become smarter and so perform more functions autonomously. But there is even greater potential if they can be connected to each other, especially if there is an internet or cloud based system that can perform higher level functions.
Whilst I have a passing interest in the technology I am far more interested in how people fit into this future. The normal idea seems to be that people are just one of the ‘things’ that can be connected to the devices via the cloud. I have a number of problems with this. Firstly, ergonomics and human factors has shown us that technology often fails to achieve its potential because people cannot use it effectively or simply don’t want to. Perhaps more significantly, I feel that the current focus on the technology means that the potential to harness human strengths will be missed.
It is true that simple systems can be automated reasonably easily, and if they are used widely the investment in developing the technology can be justified. But automating more complicated systems is far more difficult. The driverless or autonomous car gives us a very good example. How many billions of pounds/dollars have already been spent on developing that technology? There will probably be a good return on this investment in the end because once it is working effectively it will result in many thousands or millions of car sales. Industrial and process systems are complicated and tend to be unique. It is unthinkable that such massive investment will be made into developing automation that can handle every mode of operation and handle every conceivable event. This is why we still need people, and will do for many years to come.
Although the focus is currently on the technology, I think the greatest advances are going to come from using IoT to support people rather than replace them. By understanding what people can do better than technology we will achieve much more reliable and efficient systems.
Loss Prevention Bulletin
Good news for all members of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) is that they will have free access to Loss Prevention Bulletin from January. I believe this is a very significant step forward, making practical and accessible information about process safety readily available to so many more people. I have had a couple of papers published in the bulletin this year. They are both use slightly quirky but tragic case studies to illustrate important safety messages. You can download them at
Finally. Over the last couple of years a small group of us have been writing a compendium of Trevor Kletz’s work with the aim of introducing his stories to a new generation and bring his ideas update. Pre-orders are now being taken with a publication date of 18th January 2021. More details are on the publisher’s website at https://www.elsevier.com/books/trevor-kletz-compendium/brazier/978-0-12-819447-8
I hope you enjoy reading my reflections of 2020 and that you have a happy and healthy 2021.