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That would be telling

November 26, 2013


We published this post almost two years ago in recognition of the contributions to process safety made by Trevor Kletz. We are reorganizing some of our blog sites and have re-posted this one here. It’s as relevant as ever.

The Kletz Legacy

Kletz-Trevor-1In recent weeks many of us who work in the process safety discipline have of written of our appreciation for the work of Trevor Kletz, who passed away in October of this year. Probably his best eulogy is also the simplest, “He saved lives.”

As we reflect on Trevor’s contributions it is clear that one of his greatest gifts was that of telling stories. He wrote extensively on technical topics such as hazards analysis and inherent safety, but he is probably best remembered for his story-telling books such as Learning from Accidents and What Went Wrong? Human beings learn best from stories and Trevor knew it.


The lesson to do with the importance of story-telling was recently driven home for me when reading the first part of the Book of Exodus as part of a homework assignment. It’s a real page turner, replete with the infant Moses in the bullrushes, the Pharaoh’s daughter, the Nile full of blood, plagues of frogs and boils and locusts, the slaughter of first-born sons, and lambs’ blood on doorposts. All of human life is there.

As part of the same study I read a modern, earnest, thoroughly researched book that explained these phenomena in sensible terms (for example, the “blood” in the Nile could have been red soil washed down from the mountains of Ethiopia). The book further pointed out that there is little non-Biblical evidence of an exodus from Egypt. Guess which book caught my attention? The one that told the story, of course. The other book? Worthy as it was, I remember neither its title nor the name of the author.

The catch is that few people who work in the process industries have Trevor’s communications skills. Process safety professionals typically have a technical background, often engineering; they are not skilled at story-telling and have no training in it. Probably the nearest they get to telling a story is when they have to write the report following the investigation of an incident, and then company guidelines and legal advice provide little freedom for telling a story.

Safety Communication

The need to communicate is one of the most important rôles of process safety professionals. For example, most companies start formal meetings with a Safety Moment. This is an ideal time to tell a story about some process safety event. Indeed, many such meetings include either a Process Safety Beacon from the Center for Chemical Process Safety or a video from the Chemical Safety Board for just these reasons.

We are also developing a library of process-oriented Safety Moments. Here is the list at the time of writing. Please check in at our videos index for the latest list.

Publications and videos such as these are useful for all employees, but they are particularly useful at facilities that have a good safety record. It reminds the people who work there that “It” can happen anywhere, any time.

These Safety Moment videos can also serve as the basis of workshops. For example, the Mumbai High North event is structured so as to have participants analyze what happened in terms of the elements of process safety.

Elements of a Story

A properly structured story has five elements:

  1. Characters
  2. Setting
  3. Plot
  4. Conflict
  5. Resolution


Stories are about people. In the process industries we cannot generally reveal names and personal details for both ethical and legal reasons. However, we can often identify the persons involved with a job title such as “Operations Superintendent” or “Lead Instrument Engineer”. These titles usually give the reader enough information to visualize the persons involved and what their roles and responsibilities were likely to have been.

The excellent video of the Piper Alpha catastrophe presented by Brian Appleton is very much worth watching in its entirety. But it is the final few minutes (42:12 to 46:03) that are the most attention-grabbing because the whole tragedy is cast in human terms.


The setting is where the action takes place. The location for process safety events is usually clearly defined and can often be associated with pictures or videos. (There are exceptions. If one of the causes of an event was a design error, then the setting is likely to be a nondescript, air-conditioned office in a suburban office park.)


It is unusual for a process safety event to involve conflict between people (although it was a factor in the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe). However, conflicting departmental goals are often a factor — particularly the perceived clash between safety and “getting the job done”. We may instill the mantra, “There’s always time to do a job safely” into people. But they do not always behave that way.


Events in the process industries may not have a plot in the sense of anticipating what happens. After all, it is usually the conclusion in the form of a fire or explosion that raises the initial awareness. Nevertheless the multiple parallel timelines that converge on the final event provide the makings of an excellent plot.

Of course, as Peter Cook points out in his video (2:30 to 7:26) to do with the coal mining industry, it is good if some romance can be added to the plot. This is rarely possible in the process industries.


The stories we tell should have a resolution. In the case of major events such as Piper Alpha or Deepwater Horizon the resolution could be new ways of managing safety (Safety Cases) or the introduction of new regulations (SEMS). Even less dramatic stories should always provide guidance to better behaviors or improved management systems.

A Picture Tells a Thousand Words

iPad-1Not only do people learn from stories, they also learn from pictures and videos. And this is one area where the process safety business has a huge arsenal of tools, ranging from quick safety moments to more lengthy recordings captured by security cameras. And these pictures and videos are now quickly disseminated through social media sites and then viewed on tablets and other portable devices.

A video clip such as The True Meaning of Offshore Safety has an impact that no written report can ever have. This is not to say there is no role for written text. On the contrary, the video provides no background information on issues such as fire protection on the riser, the presence of subsea isolation valves, and coordination with other platforms. Videos and text work together.

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