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Turnarounds and Communication in the COVID-19 Era
Safety

Turnarounds and Communication in the COVID-19 Era

By | March 5, 2021

Process Safety expert Andy Brazier shares lessons from Trevor Kletz and how companies have managed Safety during the pandemic. Oh, and we discuss Kashmiri goats.

 

Welcome to this SpheraNOW podcast, a program focused on safety, sustainability and productivity issues. I’m James Tehrani, Spark’s editor-in-chief. Today on the show I’ll be speaking with Andy Brazier, a UK-based chemical engineer with 20 years of experience working in process safety management. Today we’ll be discussing how COVID-19 restrictions have affected communications as well as how turnaround delays and such could affect returning to operations at full strength. Thank you so much for joining me today, Andy.

 

Andy Brazier:

Hi, James.

James Tehrani:

Well, can you tell my listeners a little bit about yourself and your background and interest in process safety?

Andy Brazier:

Yeah. Well, I’m 53. I was born in New Zealand, but been brought up in the UK most of my life. I currently live in North Wales in a town called, Llandudno, which you may have heard of because it made international news because of we have a herd of Kashmiri goats who live on hills nearby and they started coming into the town center. And I know that made it to TV in all over the world, so our little town was put on the map due to COVID.

So we’re in a little bit of a peninsula on the North coast of Wales. And the Victorians came along and it was a marshland and they drained the land between. The sort of the mainland and there’s a big lump of limestone. It’s like, it’s a five-mile circumference around there, and it’s a drift 500 feet high, this lump of rock. So I don’t know the full history, but sort of a herd Kashmiri goats have lived on there for many years. So they were a gift from Kashmir, I guess. So there you’ve got there, they’re pretty, they’re feral, they’re basically wild. So when all the shops closed for COVID and the traffic diminished, instead of just staying up on the hill, they’re actually walking up the high street in town.

James Tehrani:

Oh, they’ve gone exploring.

Andy Brazier:

Yeah. And in fact, I’ve seen photos today that they’re at to what you’d call the mall, or we call the shopping centers, sat outside a department store that’s closed. And we’re not talking one or two, there’s tens or near dozens of these Kashmiri goats. So, yeah, they’re the ones where they’ve got the big horns as well, and the big chunky toes and the big horns. So, yeah, it’s been quite an event. I know I’ve been speaking to people in Australia and India, I think where people I know were sort of saying, they’d seen it reported on their TV news when it happened the first time around.

Andy Brazier:

As you say, I have 20 odd years in process safety. I started with a degree in chemical engineering and went on to do a PhD. And after that I took a job with a specialist in human factors in process safety. So I worked with them for a few years and I’ve been a freelancer sort of process safety risk consultant, specializing in human factors since 2005.

James Tehrani:

Great. And I understand you just co-wrote a book called the ‘Trevor Kletz Compendium.’ So can you tell our listeners who Trevor Kletz is and what lessons we might be able to take from him that relates to our current situation with COVID-19?

Andy Brazier:

Well, to a lot of people Trevor Kletz will be a familiar name. He was a… well, not really a chemist, but he worked in the chemical industry all his life. We’d call him a chemical engineer now. And he was probably one of the first people to recognize that safety was more than just tripping over and breaking your arm. It was there were things we could do to stop fires and explosions and toxic releases, and he realized that it was all about practical solutions, understanding why people do things. He did human factors before anyone knew what human factors was, and he wrote it, and he was a very good communicator, and he told really good stories. So, yeah, lots of us, we’re very familiar with his work. Unfortunately, he’s been dead a few years, but he was very active right towards the end of his life.

Andy Brazier:

And, so we… sort of the message went out… We’ve got…He’d written some really good books and let me just start there. What do we do with them? Should we try and update them or rewrite them in some way? And none of us fancy doing that, but we thought maybe a compendium take them, dare I say, the best bits, the interesting bits from the range of books that he did. So we’ve shared the sort of the good bits, but brought it up to date as well with new examples and maybe how some of the ideas have developed since he wrote about them. It was published just a few weeks ago and we’re [crosstalk 00:04:04].

James Tehrani:

Well, congratulations.

Andy Brazier:

Yeah, I kind of volunteered. I put my hand up to say, I’d take the lead on that, but there were five of us who wrote it together. But yeah, it took… These things take a bit longer than maybe you expect them to. I’m very happy, very proud of what we’ve achieved and I hope people appreciate that.

James Tehrani:

Well, thank you. So I understand he talked a lot about inherit safety. Can you explain that concept?

Andy Brazier:

Yeah, well, that’s a very interesting point. And he was the first to say it wasn’t his idea, but he was because of his communication skills and the way he was able to share his ideas. He said, “Well, we make out that things can be dangerous, and then we go to a lot of great efforts to add additional controls to try and achieve safety.” But inherent safety, he said, “Well, we should always go back to the beginning and say, could we have done that in a safer way to start with? Could we have done that process without the hazardous chemical, without having such a hazardous process involved?” So, the safer we can have it inherently, the less we’re reliant on additional safeguards, like engineered controls or procedures. So there’s always looking back to sort of eliminate the hazard a source, if you can or reduce the hazard because then you’ve got best, less chance of hurting people or damaging the environment.

James Tehrani:

Is that more challenging to do in the COVID-19 era when there’s that new factor in there that nobody’s dealt with in a hundred years?

Andy Brazier:

It’s interesting, isn’t it, COVID? Because it doesn’t really, in some ways, hasn’t changed what we do. We’re still making the same things and we’re following the same processes. I think probably it highlights why inherent safety is a better way to go if we can, because a lot of the extra controls we’ve added on because we’ve not followed the inherently safe approach, we’ve added, whether they’re engineered items or procedures, we’ve added them on and they create a workload.

Andy Brazier:

And now suddenly we find, oh, we’ve got people working from home, so they can’t come and fix that item or implement that procedure. And, we’ve got less people either because some people are sick or because they’re self-isolating. And again, we haven’t got the people to keep those controls in place or keep them working. On the one hand, it hasn’t really changed anything, but on the other, it’s proven that the simpler we can keep our systems, if we can eliminate the hazards or reduce them as much as possible, we become less reliant on all those additional things which are proven to be quite difficult sometimes under COVID and all the restriction that that’s brought along.

James Tehrani:

Sure. And what challenges do you think companies are having the most difficult time with in terms of process safety in the COVID era? Is it around turnarounds?

Andy Brazier:

I think turnarounds is interesting. We haven’t necessarily seen those problems yet, but we’re probably going to because people have definitely delayed that turnarounds and maintenance work and project work. And that was all planned for 2020 for good reasons. We know that the longer we keep our plants running, the more likely they are to break while we’re operating them, or the more difficult it becomes to fix them as well, because as things get more worn or more fouled and it makes it more difficult.

Andy Brazier:

So we all planned all this work for last year, but delaying it for by a little while is not that big a deal on its own right. It’s a margin of sort of reliability, I suppose. But yeah, it’s just making things more complicated. But of course, because everyone did the same, everyone’s delayed their maintenance from 2020. We’ve now got last year’s work and this year’s work to fit in. The pool of people available to do that hasn’t increased. In fact, it may well have decreased the availability of the materials we need to do it, may or may not be as readily available as they would have been. So I’m not sure we seen the problems yet, but if you just highlight how planning and preparing for this work for in 2021 could be challenging.

James Tehrani:

I could see an issue though, because usually you plan a turnaround a couple of years at least in advance. So if people had already scheduled for 2021 and the people, or companies, I should say in 2020 have to delay, they could have to delay even further into 2022 or beyond, isn’t that right?

Andy Brazier:

Well, yes. Yes, you’re right. So a team of people might’ve been lined up to do a turnaround in 2021… Yet, like you say, can they be released to do last year’s work or is last is we’re going to have to wait until next year when… So yeah, it is challenging. And again, because the pool of people available may have reduced… Again, we’ve got the sickness and self-isolation issues. People are retiring every year as well. Some companies have gone broke as a result of the lack of work that was available in 2020, so there is a danger. Actually, the pool of people available has reduced and we’re going to be putting bigger demands on them. And then, it’s a global issue. We have teams of people going around the world to do this sort of work. And, that’s the problem. It’s effected everybody in every country in the world, doesn’t it?

James Tehrani:

Yeah, for sure. And can you talk a little bit about… I know you write a lot about communication, so can you talk a little bit about some of the factors that you see coming into play in terms of communication and risk management? What are some of the biggest obstacles?

Andy Brazier:

Well, yeah. I mean, I think the main thing that can move it as broad as social distancing. We almost had it. It’s nearly a year ago, isn’t it? We were working as normal, we heard at this thing called COVID, no one knew what it meant. And then, all of a sudden… Oh, actually this is quite serious. What we need to do is keep people apart from each other and stop it spreading. And so social distancing incomes in. And that means people work from home. It means teams are kept separate physically. It means we don’t have visitors to site. And, that all affects the way we communicate because we communicate a lot face-to-face and that’s what we’re familiar with and that’s what works best.

Andy Brazier:

So yeah, we can hold meetings over teams or Zoom, and that can fill in part of the gap, but it’s not the same as being in the same room with somebody.

James Tehrani:

Sure.

Andy Brazier:

You can’t…If you’re trying to explain something to somebody and you’re in the room with them, you can get a piece of paper out and point to a line or you can hold something up physically and show them. We can’t do that as good as… I mean, our teams has been fantastic. I’ve done a lot of work and in some cases, some of the work I do it’s actually working better remotely than it normally does sort of when we tried to get everyone in the same room because we just don’t get them.

James Tehrani:

So when you’re going over like a PNID, and you’re doing it remotely versus everyone in the same room, are you concerned about just everyone understanding what part of the PNID you’re looking at, is that a big problem?

Andy Brazier:

Well, in some ways, no because you can display that PNID on the screen and point to what you’re talking about, but what we overlook is a lot of communication happens informally. So yeah, we can recreate the formal process and we can set up a meeting where we’re going to review this process, do this safety study, and that’s working quite well. It’s all the other stuff, the other day-to-day communication that wasn’t scheduled as a meeting, it wasn’t particularly planned that I’m just going to meet you James at any particular place, but I just happened to bump into you in the corridor, or I was just walking past your office and I just popped in and said, “Hi,” and then something, oh, I noticed something on your desk and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were dealing with that.” It’s all the informal communication that we lose out on.

Andy Brazier:

Also, nonverbal communication as well. A lot of you understand a message or how important a message is to somebody by not just what they say, but their body language, so we were losing out on a lot on a lot of that as well. I think there are lots of potential impacts of social distancing. The communication is one of the big things that they say, it’s one thing to… oh, we’ll have a teams meeting instead of all getting together, that’s fine, but it’s all the other stuff that doesn’t happen so well.

James Tehrani:

With communication online versus in person, are you at all concerned about risk pathways developing that might’ve been caught easier if everybody was in the same place talking face to face?

Andy Brazier:

Yeah, I’m sure that’s the case. Things get overlooked. You probably feel that you have to maybe simplify the message sometimes to get it over easier. Maybe you feel a bit more constrained time-wise that we’ve set this meeting for 30 minutes then scheduled there in the diary. I can’t overrun, so I need to just get the basics over. But I say, yeah, it is that thing where you were talking about something and you point something out on the person you’re talking to then starts talking about something slightly different. You realize that that communication has broken down somewhere because what’s important in communication, it’s fun communicating with you. It doesn’t matter what I say. It’s what you understand that’s really important. And that has to be a dynamic process. And yeah, you’re right. Remotely, we don’t always have that same level of sort of that dynamic back and forward discussion process.

James Tehrani:

Another area that’s interesting is so-called COVID fatigue. I mean, we’ve been all dealing with this for a year. We’ve been working longer hours actually, because we’ve been online rather than being face-to-face and people are just generally a little bit more tired, I think than they normally would be. And we all know that fatigue is a big factor when it comes to safety, so how does COVID fatigue play into all the fatigue factors that you’re looking at?

Andy Brazier:

Yeah, I think there’s lots of angles to it and you’re right. I mean, fatigue is definitely, can be a factor, the human factor in safety. It has the immediate health effects. If we’re continuously fatigue, it’s like being stressed, isn’t it? It’s a stressor. And so there’s the chronic sort of health issues to the individual, which is important enough. But when we’re tired, when we’re fatigued, we are more likely to either make mistakes or I know we’re not so alert to the problems that are going on. So something might be occurring on the plant and we’re because we’re not so alert, we don’t see it so quickly, and so our response is delayed and probably less effective. And I think we… There’s lots of things causing fatigue, you know COVID fatigue. You can breathe that in lots of different ways. There’s the extra hours being worked, you’re right. And although interesting fatigue levels tends to be more how good your rest periods are than necessarily how many hours you worked to a certain extent, so otherwise, there’s a danger that the online working means we’re getting disturbed more often in our hours off as well.

Andy Brazier:

But we have sort of divided teams and asking them to work different patterns, so that can be an impact on fatigue. We optimize our shift pattern with fatigue in mind, and now we’ve messed them about, so has that been an issue? We’ve got people off sick and self isolating. And so other people have had to cover those absences. And of course, COVID being what it is, it’s very contagious. It might not have just been one person missing from the team at any one time, it might be two or three. So actually, a lot of people are having to cover that absence. And actually, if people… I haven’t had COVID yet, luckily, but people are reporting a high level of fatigue when they have had it. And that’s going to be another issue either. They’re going to go to work suffering from this fatigue, or they’re not going to go to work and people have to keep covering them. So, yeah, there’s so many different angles where fatigue could be an issue.

James Tehrani:

Sure. And unfortunately, some people have what I think they’re calling them long-termers who have effects from COVID for many, many months. Some people just get it for a couple of days. Some people get it for a longer term.

Andy Brazier:

Well, yeah. We’re calling it long COVID in the UK. I don’t know what you’re calling it out there. But yeah, it does seem to be… I think a lot of things around the pandemic getting the real data is a little bit tricky. Is it one in 10 people getting long COVID? Is it one in a hundred? I don’t really know. Is it different to any other post viral condition? I’m not sure, but a lot of people are getting a virus and we would expect a fair number of them to have longer term effects as a result of that. So, yeah, it’s something we’ve got to be aware of. And we’ve got to be aware that it’s going to happen. We’ve got to be aware of what the process safety risks and how can we manage them?

James Tehrani:

I want to ask you about something you wrote last year. You said, “That companies had implemented the measures they needed to handle the personal health aspects of the pandemic, but we’re not considering the knock on effects on communication. This is a classic management of change issue.” Can you explain that quote to us?

Andy Brazier:

Yeah, because companies have to manage change all the time. And I suppose there’s an argument that says in the last decades, changes happened more rapidly, more frequently, so we like to think we’ve got better at it. And, probably from a equipment hardware point of view, we’re pretty good at that now from a human organizational point of view, we’re still not so great. And now with the reason we change is… There’s two reasons, either because we have to, some something forces us to make a change, or we see an opportunity and we see, well, we could do that better and we’ll do something else as a result. Now, obviously, COVID has come along and we have to change. And we got very little notice about it. And, we fixated on the social distancing. We’ve got to get people apart. We’ll get… Right, okay, from tomorrow, you’re working from home. You’re on a different shift rotor now, so that you don’t have to meet up.

Andy Brazier:

Great, we’ve separated people. We’ve reduced that immediate issue with the personal health side, which is great. And, I think we have to look back and say how amazing it is that we did it so effectively and so rapidly. What we’re pretty poor at from a management change perspective generally is looking at the unintended consequences and the unexpected. We get fixated on what we have to do or what we wanted to do and don’t necessarily recognize that there might be knock on effects. Like you say that we’ve done the social distancing bit. But oh, hang on, like I said earlier, what impact is that going to have on the wider communications piece and what impact’s that going to have to our business as a result?

Andy Brazier:

So, that was kind of what I was getting to. Yes, great. We’ve dealt with the immediate, but we haven’t sort of considered the longer term. And also, did we put any measures in place? Have we recognized maybe the impact on communication. No, we’re now going to look back and say, “Has it happened as we expected? Are we getting problems?” Because we don’t look for those problems. The time we find them may well be when we’ve had an accident. And clearly, we don’t want that to be the case.

James Tehrani:

Sure. And can I ask you to channel your inner Trevor Kletz for a moment? And what do you think he would be focused on during the COVID-19 era? Would there be anything different or are there any lessons that he had written about that you think would be appropriate today?

Andy Brazier:

I think he would probably say we happen to see it as particularly unusual that things happen all the time. We have to deal with… It’s a crisis management really that we need to be talking about. And actually, a lot of things that happen on a plant on a day-to-day basis are minor crises that we have to deal with. So, maybe in that regard he would say, “Well, we kind of know what we need to do. Maybe we should have practiced it better to be ready.” That’s not always so straightforward, but we haven’t… We shouldn’t just go rushing off at a tangent to say that this is something we’ve never dealt with before, we’re going to go and do something completely different. It would all be about understanding, using the processes we already have to understand what those risks are. And also, using that knowledge we have to know how we can manage risks and putting that into practice.

James Tehrani:

That’s great. I really appreciate your time. Was there any communication related safety issues that I didn’t ask you about today that you think would be important for our listeners to know?

Andy Brazier:

Not particularly COVID-related, but just remind people that communication is not as simple as we think it is. That we all like to think we’re great communicators. And I say we can be a bit fixated on what we say, and actually, that’s not really the important thing. It’s how it’s understood and how it’s perceived. That is the important thing. So whenever we send out a message… And from a human factors perspective, it’s always better to use several modes of communication. So we might say something verbally, but if we can then follow that up with an email or a note of some sort, if we can, instead of just putting something in texts, if we can provide a diagram as well.

James Tehrani:

Sure.

Andy Brazier:

It’s that, but it’s also kind of culturally, as well as that you don’t just say something that you ask for feedback as well and you’re what… The easiest thing to do is assume that you’ve been misunderstood and probe to make sure that that’s not the case. We tend to work the other way and say, “I’ve said it, I presume you’ve understood.” And then later on say, “Well, I did tell you, why didn’t you do what I told you to do?” So I would say just remember, it’s more difficult than you think it is.

James Tehrani:

I don’t know if you have this childhood game in the UK, but in the U.S., we have a game called telephone where one kid tells the next person something, a sentence or two, and then there’s a whole circle of people and it goes around and then it gets back to the original person and nine chances out of 10, the messages get skewed along the way. And I think that’s… It’s a basic example, but it’s something that I think we see in business and process safety as well.

Andy Brazier:

Yeah, that’s right. We have similar over here. And there’s two elements to that then. That’s the basic error is a natural part of imprecision is a natural part of certainly verbal talking. But also, it’s a reminder that we maybe need to think about how we’re presenting messages as well to simplify. So yeah, the more complicated we make things, the more likely they are to be misunderstood and forgotten and confused. So, yeah, there’s communication is just… It’s far more difficult than we tend to give it credit for, and we’re not… none of us are as good as we think we are.

James Tehrani:

Definitely. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Andy, this was a pleasure talking with you. I really appreciate it.

Andy Brazier:

Okay. Thank you, James. Nice to have a chat with you.

 

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