Alan Shelbourne, Process Safety Manager discusses “Is it all about the money?”
How many times have you seen or heard the words – ‘Safety is our number one priority?’
From the Government through to companies of all sizes with management echoing those simple words, we need to start questioning, do they really believe this and do their actions actually prove that safety really is their number one priority?
At the recent Hazards29 conference – where ENGIE Fabricom headlined as a main sponsor – I listened to a session where my biggest take-away was related to a point that, to para-phrase, asked the question ‘why do people only get process safety when something happens that impacts their life in a direct way?’
It seems to be the norm that people and companies only stand up and pay attention if somebody they know closely – a relative, friend or work colleague – is seriously injured or, even worse, killed because of a failure in a design, a procedure or a ‘human action (or inaction)’.
In the majority of cases a series of events occurred involving some or all of the above factors, that nobody really considered and the result was life-changing.
The reaction and response to recent catastrophic incidents outside of the process industries demonstrate this, e.g major fire in a high rise residential building in the UK or air disasters.
In both cases media reports and inquiries have suggested that the focus on cost management and cost saving has reduced the attention paid to the key “basis of safety”.
Both of these incidents continue to have had worldwide coverage. As technical safety problems, it is alleged that their root causes were closely linked to a drive to save cost and time as a high priority, with safety implications taking a lower priority by default.
Both cases ended up with catastrophic end results.
So how do we rationalise these cases? If you’re directly affected, as noted above, then the issues are clear. Somebody has been able to take a decision, usually within a legal framework, that has allowed an ‘unsafe system’ to be approved.
How can this be right? Who is to blame? The buck has to stop somewhere, doesn’t it?
Western democracies, their governments and legal systems seek to find redress when such events occur, however the timescales involved in ‘investigations and legal argument’ are typically measured in years, sometimes tens of years. The balance of power in these ‘justice systems’ does not favour those parties with minimal financial means.
Access to high quality (high cost) legal advice and the resources to fund a case over an extended period do not facilitate a balanced outcome. Redress for the Bhopal incident in 1984 still has not been settled 35 years after the incident, a process safety case which proves the point.
So, how do we change the wider business perception that spending time and cost in developing inherently safer systems and designs, and not just in the so called hazardous, high risk industries makes sense? If those involved in the cost decisions don’t perceive the risks, then it’s unlikely that they will change their thinking on the potential value of ‘costly’ safety features, until the unimaginable happens. Even then, the causes and impacts of an event may not ‘join up’ if those involved are not affected by the consequences of failure.
As a society and an industry, the consequences of our failures need to be addressed and we need to learn lessons faster and spread them much more widely. If we don’t share our learnings then it’s almost certain that the same issues will continue to occur somewhere else. And, as such, we will continue to fail.
Within business financial penalties tend to have the biggest influence on future behaviour. However, as previously witnessed, the payment of financial penalties can be delayed and deferred within the various legal and contractual constructs. This doesn’t help speed up risk reduction and the dissemination of good practice within the industries affected.
How do we work collaboratively in industry to ensure that a focus is made on deliverables that have safety designed in, that can be constructed safely and that will operate safely throughout their operational life-cycle and can then be safely decommissioned. All of this whilst also still providing businesses with an acceptable return?
The global nature of large projects, the availability of resources, skills and knowledge will always impact their cost. Business and commercial decision makers need to be continually reminded that the cost of the decisions they impose on a project may only manifest many years into the future.
Cost cutting decisions made now can always be justified by the comment we’ve all heard…. ‘if we can’t reduce the cost the job won’t get approved and we can always make improvements in the future when the cashflow becomes positive.’ Oh yes.
Tell that to the managers and engineers working on the plant ten years into the future. I’m sure they would have a different view on that decision-making process, especially when considering the process safety attributes.
The cost decisions applied to smaller projects will have the same issues.
Financial decisions must not be allowed to reduce the rigour applied to safety features and safety thinking. Design knowledge, systems and processes within the design team (third party and client) may be more limited, hence and the risk awareness / perception may be lower than that of a much larger organisation. It is important then, as a client engaging third party engineering resources, to ensure that the quality of the personnel working on the project is commensurate with the potential hazards / complexity of the design. The cheapest quote may only reflect the quality of the resources / equipment being offered.
In summary, project costs are an important factor in the decision-making process, but should they be the most important?
As a client, if you pay more for the project what is your expectation of the extra value you may derive from paying more? Does paying more guarantee a better outcome? A strictly managed and controlled ‘basis of design’ and the quality of the team (client and contractor), consistently applying the project systems and procedures will generally lead to good outcomes. Working as a project team rather than contractual rivals will help when the inevitable problems arise and need to be solved.
Needless to say, the psychology, human relationships, tribal mentality, ethics and morality of those involved will impact performance. Communication is critical to ensure that all parties have an opportunity ‘to win’.
In my opinion, the current reality is that – ‘It is all about the money’.
This position must be challenged by process safety professionals and the wider society. The outrage at design safety failings, which for a marginal increase in expenditure would have been eliminated ‘at source’, should be the question asked every time a ‘cost saving’ change proposal is made.
Every ‘cost saving’ proposal should be challenged, tested and justified against the backdrop of ‘process safety impact’. The codes and standards applied to these assessments should also consider potential technical and legal ‘loopholes’ that would allow inferior materials or techniques to be applied to the design ‘within the law’. Laws are subject to revision, change and revocation.
Simple test – ask yourself the question – would you allow your family to live in a high-rise tower that you knew was clad in a material that was known to be flammable?
No challenge to the status quo – results in no change.