Industrial accidents continue to plague workers in Canada. From 2011 to 2013, there was an average of 250 deaths per year in two key combined categories: mining, quarrying and oil wells and manufacturing, according to Canada’s National Work Injury/Disease Statistics Program.
Most fatal accidents are preceded by obvious warning signs. These include “urgent” maintenance left for months, a lack of operator experience and a management team that sacrifices everything for profitability. This leads to multiple near-misses that, even if minor, can eventually lead to a serious event or fatality.
Preventable accidents occur every day and most of the problems can be traced to leadership culture in the organization. Although these companies may have emphasized the importance of safety, it is not enough just to expound it. Scepticism is a vital part of your safety program to ensure that your company is actually doing what it says.
It is part of human nature to slip into comfortable bad habits, or take a short cut just once that, over time, becomes the norm. Your safety systems may be amazing but no organization is immune to complacency. An important aspect of a Process Safety Management (PSM) program is a healthy dose of scepticism in your processes, people and equipment.
We can’t see all our personal faults. It is the same with getting safety audits by people not involved in the day-to-day operations. An auditor may see issues even dedicated staff miss and an outside look by an independent third party is the best way to ensure your processes and culture are adequate. Formal audits conducted by accredited agencies can be great for this. An outside audit can help a company define best industry practices, ensuring those practices are talked about, defined and rewarded.
In the maintenance department, auditors with a sceptical attitude can check if the important tasks are being completed and the critical issues are resolved. Is there a growing list of bypasses, workarounds or compromises needed to keep the line moving? Be sceptical and concerned about stop-gap solutions, or a growing list of high-priority items that never get done.
Among your operations crew, it may be time to conduct in-depth interviews about your procedures. Don’t make the process accusatory. Out-of-date information can persist in documents and operational memory. Review the utility of your procedures and ask if they may be considered pointless or redundant. Ask the question: do your daily operations include improvised or informal procedures that should be formalized? Be sceptical but not judgmental of quiescent staff — it may be frustration or fear that keeps them from speaking out.
Human factors and safety culture are intertwined. The written procedure may be to report spills and leaks so they can be cleaned up, examined and the cause found and corrected. Is it mopped up and forgotten because people don’t want to deal with the reporting paperwork? Is it ignored because nobody ever gets around to fixing it anyways? Be sceptical of the lack of small incidents as it may indicate they are not being reported and the problems not being fixed. Multiple small problems can lead to a much larger incident.
Some companies develop incentives to promote safety but may instead create bigger problems. For example, a company may reward zero-reported safety incidents in a month. This can lead to people covering up incidents that should be reported and acted upon in order to collect the reward. Talk to the staff and management about any incentive plans. Be sceptical of the supposed outcome. Find out what behaviour and results are actually rewarded. Are these counter to your goals of process safety?
My call to action is “chronic unease” in your own safety. My suggestion is scepticism in your own security. Safety is not a task to be completed and done with but a continuous and never-ending duty.
Michael Bottos is a Calgary-based chemical engineer and senior risk consultant for Lloyd’s Register, a global engineering, technical and business services organization owned by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, a UK charity dedicated to research and education in science and engineering.