The Weekly Reflektion 06/2022

We may trust the systems and equipment that we use to ensure that the activities we carry out are safe but not everyone is in a position to be able to trust these systems.

Welding on a pipeline

Are you too easily satisfied that the safety systems on your facility are functioning satisfactorily?

Peter Sandman, a professor of environmental journalism at Rutgers University in the US, has written and presented several articles on risk communication and is well worth a search on Google. One of the examples he uses to illustrate the way industry typically presents risk to the public is the engineer standing on the podium with a knife in his/her hand, waving it enthusiastically about and assuring everyone that it is safe. The people attending the presentation sit and think to themselves ‘It’s OK for you as you have the knife’.

I worked at the oil terminal at Sullom Voe in Shetland not longafter I graduated and I was lucky enough to work for an experienced process superintendent, Jim McCormack, who like many of the others there, had served his time in the Middle East. Jim often told stories of his early days in the oil and gas industry and his reflections over his experiences. Plenty of material for our Weekly Reflektions.

Jim was working as a process technician on a gas plant, and they had recently experienced a rupture in a gas pipeline. The pipeline had been isolated and preparations were being made for a repair. The welders were from the Philippines and communication was difficult. The welders spoke little English, and Jim was from Bo’ness in Scotland, enough said. Jim’s task was to ensure the isolations were in place and measure the gas content in the pipeline so ensure no fire or explosion. He used a handheld gas detector and noted the gas content as zero. He showed the welders the gas detector with the number and gave them the thumbs up. The welders shook their heads and refused to start work. Jim tried to explain that the gas content was OK and that they could start. One of the welders handed Jim the electrode holder and pointed to the repair site. ‘You weld first, then we weld’. Jim took the holder and struck an arc with the electrode. The welder then took the holder back and gave Jim the thumbs up.

Some things may be pretty clear to us but maybe not so clear to others. Sometimes our experience and knowledge allow us to trust equipment and systems where others without that experience and knowledge would be skeptical. Sometimes another approach is required to provide this assurance.

When it comes to the safety of the people working at our facilities and effectively in our care, we can’t just assume that people understand the systems in place to ensure their safety. We should not expect them to be satisfied that everything is OK just because someone tells them, and neither should we be so satisfied. Note the comment from Lord Cullen in the report from the Public Inquiry into Piper Alpha.

The management at Occidental were too easily satisfied that the permit to work system on Piper Alpha was being operated correctly’.

Are you too easily satisfied that your safety systems are working satisfactorily?

Reflekt AS