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Imagine Thinking Backwards

December 10, 2013


A useful discussion entitled Why Have We Dumbed-Down Safety? at the EHSQ Elite LinkedIn site prompted some thoughts to do with the way we approach hazards analysis.

If the premise of the original post – that safety has indeed been dumbed down – is accepted then one reason may be that we treat safety as a discrete topic: one that is its own discipline rather than being the outcome of the work of all other disciplines and activities. This creates a paradigm in which the “dumbed down” safety professionals think primarily in terms of safeguards such as PPE and emergency response. Yet a safeguard is the last stop in the safety process — indeed if a safeguard is needed then it shows, to a degree, that we have given up on avoiding incidents from occurring in the first place. For example, if the consequence of a hazard is a fire then the use of the fire brigade is not really a barrier, it is an after-the-event safeguard.

Thinking Backwards

Risk is generally divided into three main elements: hazard, consequences and likelihood, as illustrated in the following simple equation:

Risk hazard = Consequence * Likelihood

  1. A hazard — an action or situation that has the potential to cause harm;
  2. The consequences of the hazard: safety, environmental, economic;
  3. The likelihood of the hazard actually occurring.

Many people, particularly safety professionals, tend to approach safety from the right hand side of the equation. For example, a facility may have a pump handling a flammable, toxic chemical. The seal on the pump fails quite frequently. Potential consequences of a seal leak include workers in the area being sprayed with the chemical, a fire at the pump, and health problems for the maintenance workers who have to replace the seal. Management determines that theses seal problems are unacceptable and that the risk should be reduced to an acceptable level.

The first reaction of many people will be to improve the safeguards. For example, the maintenance workers, they can be provided with better PPE. Or maybe additional emergency procedures can be put in place so that someone can be quickly rescued if he or she is overcome.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with these measures, and they may be needed in the short term. But a better long-term approach is to work backwards along the risk equation and to ask if the frequency of pump seal failures can be reduced. Actions that can be taken to reduce likelihood include installing a more reliable seal, improving the training of the maintenance workers, and filtering the liquid being pumped so that solids do not damage the seal.

A better approach, however, is to to continue to move to the left along the risk equation and to reduce the consequence of the hazard, should it occur. In the case of the pump means of doing this could include replacing the liquid with one that is less toxic or flammable, or reducing the inventory of liquid in the pumping system so as to reduce the worst case scenario.

Kletz-Trevor-1However, the best approach of all is to continue moving left along the equation and remove the hazard itself. Adding yet another tribute to the memory of Trevor Kletz, one of his quotations was, “If a tank’s not there, it can’t leak”. So, in the case of the leaking pump seal the undumb safety professional asks questions such as, “Can we use a canned/seal-less pump?” or “Can we replace the pump with a gravity feed system?” (Naturally, these new concepts introduce a new set of risks that also must be analyzed and deemed to be acceptable before they are implemented.)


One of the topics that developed at the LinkedIn discussion referred to at the start of this post was the role of thinking in safety. Although people should always be encouraged to think about what they are doing and how their work could be done more safely, there is value in having people carry out routine tasks in an automated manner — thinking could actually cause them to make mistakes.


Monty Python Gumbies

With regard to the elimination of hazards, however, not only is there a need for thinking, there is a particular need for imaginative thinking. And this type of thinking is hard work. To think imaginatively and creatively puts one in mind of the Monty Python quotation, “My brain hurts”. Therefore, one response as to whether we have “dumbed down” safety is for process safety professionals to do what they can to get people to think about hazards can be removed, and to encourage discussions and analyses that help with the hard work of creative thinking.

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