By | March 5, 2019

Working in the world of Environmental Health & Safety is difficult. There’s so much at stake.

In most cases, you don’t always know if you got it right, but you sure know when you got it wrong! Risk trends can show continuous improvement or, at the least, no further deterioration, but do you know how you influenced specific process improvements?

When everything is going right, do we learn anything? For example, you share a safety suggestion with your team, everybody agrees that it’s good, but no one is convinced it applies to them so they dismiss it and think, “No, that doesn’t sound like something that would happen in my area.” It could be many months or years for that risky set of conditions to arise again, and by that time, your suggestion has been forgotten, people have moved on, circumstances have changed and the organization is once again vulnerable to this specific risk.

How Can You Make Performance Worse Based on the Resources That Are Available to You?

A couple of years ago, while I was working in the EHS department of a major operator, I met a professor who challenged me on the topic of safety. His challenge was this: “How can you make performance worse based on the resources that are available to you?” It took some time for his statement to sink in, but my initial response was to tell him: “Stop being stupid!” But over the next few days, I started to understand what he meant.

In other words, what was my sphere of influence? Based on the resources I have available to me such as email, telephone, presentations, dashboards, etc., if I could not make the situation worse, how did I think I could I make it better? How could I make the right decisions to help my team and the organization improve safety performance and reduce our exposure to risk?

As an example, I was once responsible for writing a procedure to help manage my organization’s response to hydrocarbon leaks. This procedure provided supporting information on what to do in different scenarios related to leaks. It was adopted and used successfully for several years until the fateful day came when a large hydrocarbon release took place. Fortunately no one was hurt, and the damage was mostly financial.

During the incident investigation, it was found that one sentence from one paragraph of the 10-page procedure document I had created was being used as a “workaround” to justify the unsafe working conditions that led to the hydrocarbon release. When this sentence was read in full context of the document, it was perfectly safe, but out of context, it allowed for a risky situation to exist. Unknowingly, from the comfort of my office, I was able to simultaneously promote safe and unsafe behaviors at the front line.

This takes me back to the question posed by the professor: “How can you make performance worse based on the resources that you have available to you?” I had done everything I could to stop that situation from happening, but it still happened.

The Human Decision-making Process

Consider the decision-making process that might have led to the operators taking a “workaround” approach to the work activity detailed above. The thought-process might have been something like this;

  • Experience and optimism:– “It went fine the last time, so I’m sure everything will be fine this time.”
  • Trust: “My team knows what they are doing. I’m sure they will do the work safely. Why wouldn’t they?”
  • Emotions and pride: “The team looks busy. I don’t want to interrupt them and ask stupid questions.”
  • Logic: “The risk assessed is low, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
  • Production target pressure: “We need to get the job done; we don’t have time to stop.”

Many companies and organizations use Risk Assessment Matrix (RAM) models as a means of efficiently classifying the risk of events based on frequency and consequence. This provides interesting insights when considering the frequency of incidents. Disappointingly, at least 70 percent of safety incidents fall into the category of “this has happened before.”

Therefore, if this type of decision-making results in repeat incidents, something has got to change. With so many factors increasing risk, and so many moving parts and unknown elements, this kind of decision-making is flawed. Many longer-term safety trend graphs are showing that after a period of significant gains over the past 20 years of improving performance, we are now in a period of sustained plateau. Which means, the challenge is this: How do we deliver further improvements? Will more of the same deliver more of the same? How can we influence positive change? How do we make the right decisions?

In the past, information was collected in many different systems owned by various departments. Establishing a single version of the truth was difficult. Whereas we are now living in a world where we are awash with data at our fingertips, or even voice command. Smart assistants can tell you the answer to virtually any question in seconds, but that still leaves the dilemma of what do you do with the information when you have it?

The best example is how shopping has changed. Walking around shops trying to find what you want has been replaced with online price comparison sites driving down prices and increasing competition. By providing people with the information they need in an easy-to-use format, the retail industry has been revolutionized.

What If We Were to Apply a Similar Model to Hazardous Industries?

As we start to connect more information technology systems, we now have the opportunity to deliver information “just in time” to the workforce without overloading them. Organizations can make the most of new connected technologies to help the decision-making process by providing insights that they may have otherwise missed. They can be alerted to adverse conditions early and track performance at a more micro level—all in real time—without having to wait a month for a key performance indicator report. Technology does not replace the human in the process; quite the opposite. It empowers people to work better and more safely. When you harness these insights with the experience of the staff, better quality decisions can be made.

Going back to the case of the hydrocarbon release, if we’d had smarter technology, the situation could have been different. The isolation plan could have been automatically pulled in from the most up-to-date piping and instrumentation diagram (P&ID), and the isolation procedure could have been delivered at the same time along with any other relevant operational procedures. Any learnings that had been captured previously could be considered at the point of action. The fact that there was maintenance ongoing in another area could have been highlighted, and the combined risk of both concurrent activities made visible so that better decisions could have been made.

Therefore, by equipping the workforce with the right information at the right time, we can ensure operations are safer and more productive. In summary, access to better quality information leads to better decisions. If the retail and travel industry can do it in our home life, why should we accept less in our work lives?

More than 100 senior industry leaders across the hazardous industries shared their insights on the ability to improve operational decisions, reduce or manage Operational Risk, and improve asset availability and uptime. Over 90 percent suggested digital transformation as the path forward. Download the free industry report.

Considering the question posed earlier, how can you help revolutionize your industry and use the new-found source of knowledge positively?