Making Safety Decisions without a Blindfold

By Mike Neill, Petrotechnics USA

I recently presented at the 2016 AIChE Spring Meeting and 12th Annual CCPS Global Congress on Process Safety, in Houston. This prestigious conference had over 2,600 high-level attendees across hazardous industries, including oil, gas, chemical, utilities, pharma and more. Among the many process safety management insights at the event, this statistic stood out:

80 percent of people believe safety takes a backseat to production.

This is a curious statistic since executive management in most companies today firmly communicate safety as their number-one priority. The trouble is priority decisions often do not include clear cases of what is safe and what is not. Corporate policies, guidelines, and procedures involve degrees of interpretation, and, executive management cannot be on hand to provide clarity for every decision! Margin calls become necessary where guidance from policy may be ambiguous, and the determination of risk is not absolute. Frequently decisions are forced due to a sense of urgency to restore equipment to service or bring the plant back onto production. Is this a case of frontline workers openly defying corporate priorities on safety? Is it management speaking out both sides of their mouth? More often than not, these dilemmas arise through a lack of information and data.

On a cliff's edge, blindfolded

Consider this analogous situation. You are standing on the edge of a cliff with a 200-foot drop. You can see the consequence of falling is certain death, and even if you think the likelihood of falling is low, you consider the overall risk as high because you cannot take your mind off the severe consequence. In this situation, you know if you move away from the edge, you will decrease you chances of falling so your decision on how to act is easy to make. If, however, you are wearing a blindfold, the situation is different. You may sense danger but have no hard facts to confirm it. Therefore, you may decide to proceed cautiously, considering any risk to be acceptable. In practice the lack of information, for example, loss of vision, should warrant alarm. Very often we ask our frontline personnel to make decisions on risk without ample information or data needed to make a good decision.

Around 46 percent of safety barrier failures occur because of uncomprehensive hazard analysis or communication programs. In other words, decisions are made without a proper understanding of the risks. Operations teams are frequently forced to make critical decisions without a complete picture of priority and consequence. Without a clear and comprehensive definition of activities, decision-making is a functional, piecemeal process leading to exposure to risk as well as inefficiencies in the execution of work.

A common language of risk

It is an imperative that everyone, from the boardroom to the frontline, understands work priorities based on a common parameter – such as risk – instead of opinion. By introducing a common language of risk, teams at all levels of the organization have the insight they need to prioritize the right, most impactful work. With enterprise-wide visibility into the real-time health of process safety barriers, everyone across the business can quickly and easily understand and manage exposure to major accident hazard (MAH) risk. When this happens, suddenly process safety is in the driving seat, shaping operational actions that decrease risk and increase productivity.

But before we rush to judge our workers or the management of our hazardous plants, let’s make certain those who are making critical decisions have access to the right data and information. Let’s remove the blindfolds so the correct decisions can be made that actively drive productivity, without exposure to unnecessary or unacceptable risk.

Mike Neill is president of Petrotechnics USA Inc. To learn more about Petrotechnics and its enterprise operations excellence software platform, you can visit