How to Read and Why
Recent posts at this blog have discussed the importance of written communications as part of the process safety profession. They include:
- That would be telling
- The PSM Dead Parrot Story
- The Risk Management Professional
- The Risk Management Consultant
Much of the discussion in these posts has been to do with the importance of writing well — process safety professionals often have to write reports based on tasks and projects such as hazards analyses, incident investigations and prestartup reviews. These reports need to be clear, succinct and readable. Yet writing well is not sufficient. It is equally important that the reader of the report actually knows how to read. (It is often assumed that, if a written report fails to communicate its message, then the writer has a problem and needs to improve his or her technique. But another response to the difficulty is that maybe the reader needs to improve his or her reading skills.)
Now, in this context the word ‘read’ does not mean the ability to understand written statements such as “Reverse flow could cause corrosion of the impeller of Pump, P-101”. It means understanding the underlying causes of the problem and developing an understanding of management system failures; reading well will help identify hidden messages.
In the year 2000 Yale Professor Harold Bloom (b. 1930) published the book How to Read and Why. Although his book is directed to those reading classical literature some of his thoughts and insights can be applied to the more banal activity of reading process safety reports.
His aphorism, “Clear your mind of cant” is particularly important. Cant means, “Monotonous talk filled with platitudes” or “Hypocritically pious language”. The safety business is prone to such platitudes and to pious language. For example, when discussing a major incident that has killed and injured many people it is common to use the word ‘tragedy’ when describing the event. And of course it is a tragedy – for those affected personally. But for people who were not involved in the event in any way use of the word ‘tragedy’ often seems to be somewhat sanctimonious. It is probably best simply to use the word ‘incident’.
More broadly, Bloom’s advice can mean simply “Clear your mind”.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) expressed the same concept when he said,
Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe and take for granted, not to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.
What both of these writers are saying is that, when reading, we should refrain from being ‘prejudiced’ in the literal sense of the word: ‘pre + judge’. We should open our minds, as best we are able, to understanding what the writer is really saying, not to what we think he or she is saying.
This is difficult. As Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) said, “A truth ceases to be a truth as soon as two people perceive it.” In other words facts are never truly objective; each person has their own perception of what they perceive to be the same reality. His insight also suggests that there is no such entity as ‘common sense’ — no two people have a common view of the world so they can never share a ‘common sense’.
In addition to his condemnation of cant Bloom suggests that an understanding of irony is also part of deep reading. But this insight does not apply to the process safety world. All reports should be written ‘straight’, with no use of word play.
Effective reading in the process safety world is analogous to incident analysis and attempting to identify root causes.
For example, a report to do with a Prestartup Safety Review may state, “The start-up of the modified system could not proceed because the safety-critical pressure gauge downstream of Pump, P-101A had not been installed”.
The plant manager on reading this may react in a ‘prejudiced’ manner by stating that he always knew that the company that makes that type of gauge was not to be trusted. But a deeper reading of the report may proceed as follows.
- The safety-critical pressure gauge was not installed.
- The gauge had been delivered on time but it had been put in the wrong location in the facility warehouse.
- The warehouse manager was on vacation and her substitute did not understand the parts data base system.
- No one in the warehouse has ever received formal training.
- Because the process safety training program is directed just to line operators and maintenance personnel.
A deep reading of just one sentence has led to useful process safety insights.
Many companies encourage their employees to attend courses on improving their “Communication Skills”. Such courses tend to focus on how to write clearly and economically. Such training can be invaluable, but its effect would be greatly enhance were process safety professionals and their managers also trained in deep and thoughtful reading.