Why you should adopt a holistic approach to safety management

Paul Boughton

‘safety’ and ‘holistic’



" Before answering the question in the title, it is instructive to review the definition...  

Before answering the question in the title, it is instructive to review the definition of some of the vocabulary used in the question. Let us focus on ‘business’, ‘safety’ and ‘holistic’.
In the context of the western economic model, a business is a legal organisational entity formed to sell goods and/or services to consumers, usually with the primary objective of generating profit.
Safety is the state of being safe. To be safe is to be protected from an event, or from exposure to circumstances that can lead to a non-desirable consequence such as the loss of possessions, health, or at worst, loss of life.
The term holistic was summarised excellently by the philosopher Aristotle: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
If we assume that we all desire to keep our possessions, our health and our lives in good condition, and our businesses generating wealth to aid our enjoyment, then why should safety be addressed as a ‘totality’ to ensure this happens?
When things go awry, one can read the news headlines: casualties, destruction, business disruption or stoppage, legal trials, compensation, fines, distress in the community, recovery efforts, anger, grief, despair, and more. In brief, there are losses of all nature, and the consequences affect all of us as victims and workers and stakeholders in businesses, society and the economy.
Businesses are legal entities, and as such, have rights and duties. Society defines legal frameworks for plant operations with different degrees of constraint around the world. Generally, the spirit of the law is clear that safety is not an option and edicts frameworks that support safety implementation. The law is meant to prevent accidents and to protect all of us, and punishment lends credibility to the law.
An example of the law driving technical practices is the Clean Air Act in the US, which drove the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) to write the risk management programme (RMP) rule.
Industry has developed a number of standards and rules. The IEC61508 and 61511 standards are of particular interest to this discussion, because they have stimulated a small revolution by introducing and formalising the concept of the safety lifecycle. It encompasses all safety-related systems implementation and technical activities from a project concept through to the disposal phases.
Again, it points out the necessity for risk management, employing a variety of principles and methods. It also implies that task forces with different competencies should be involved. For example, risk assessments should involve different parties such as process specialists, engineers, equipment suppliers, operators and maintenance. This approach encourages more thorough analysis, cross-disciplinary communication and therefore the cross-fertilisation of ideas. A much better sense of the reality in the field is captured and, as a result, more effective protection strategies can then be implemented.
The design, engineering and integration of safety solutions require more than just the technical activities, configuration and assembly of certified equipment. The execution of a project demands, at the very least, the adoption of recognised engineering best practice; the validation of the implemented technical solution; the production of clear documentation supporting, justifying and tracking all activities; and most of all, trained and competent teams. The scope of these activities is not limited to the project delivery schedule, but extends to the operation of the commissioned system for the operational life of the plant, which is typically two decades.

Plant production, operation and maintenance teams are bound to what they receive as their safety solution, and their efficiency and protection performance cannot go much beyond that supplied. Hence, a clear understanding of what is required to protect the plant and to maintain the integrity of the protection system is essential to ensure safe daily operation.
However, let us not forget the importance of employing and nurturing well-trained and competent personnel that follow programmed, sustained procedures during the life of the plant. This all takes more than just acknowledging alarms.
Safety should not only be the concern of a high profile specialist. It has been established that we are all affected when an accident occurs, or when a job is interrupted at any phase. In order to conduct a project effectively and achieve the required results, we need all the support, competence, means and authority from immediate management, up to executives and even the board of directors. Otherwise, information progressively goes astray, the realities of a plant are screened and any RMP or safety management plans are progressively eroded and weakened.
Beyond the plant limits, it is equally essential to consider the importance of good communication between the industrial operators and the public authorities, whose main purpose is to implement adequate preparedness and response plans.
Recently, the BP Texas refinery and the UK’s Buncefield fuel storage depot accidents caught the attention of professionals, the authorities and the public. Independent investigations and the results of their findings have been released, which give a list of recommendations for implementing safety measures1, 2. These reports certainly endorse a holistic approach.
If you feel that this all sounds rhetorical and offers little in practice, or that it may have no connection to the everyday realities of business (schedules, budgets, competition, share prices and so on) let us consider a model developed in cyndinic science, the scope of which is to understand and predict hazards and the resulting risks.
Central to this science is the five dimensions of what we could call ‘hazard hyperspace’ These dimensions are statistics (history), epistemic (models and representations), deontological (law, rules, standards, codes), axiological (values) and teleological (aims, purpose).
The models offered by this science serve to describe the risk of a situation by considering the interaction of these five dimensions and how hazardous situations and the associated risks can emerge and develop over time. Organisational networks (of people) each carry their own ‘hyperspace’, meaning its own unique combination of factors extending in the five dimensions discussed.
This science clearly shows that as soon as any one dimension of the hyperspace in a network carrying responsibilities is underrepresented, then the risk associated with potential hazards develops. This indicates greater certainty of occurrence and the possibility of more severe consequences (Fig.1).
For example, the lack of statistics relating to safety and the lack of available information makes it difficult to learn from past mistakes, or to model hazards and, develop safety strategies. This could equally apply to a single plant, which does not review maintenance history during routine planning.
The emergence of risk is also demonstrated when gaps are formed between the hyperspaces of two distinct organisational networks (Fig.2). This establishes that all entities (individuals, teams, departments) and their hyperspaces have an impact, and that an out-of-control situation or an accident can result from what we could describe as systemic rather than random factors.
Certainly, this model supports the idea that a holistic approach is a good stance to take in order to cover all the aspects of the cyndinic hyperspace and therefore control risk effectively.
Let us consider the organisational networks of a board and a maintenance team. If the primary goal of the board is to focus on stock market performance, then this might diminish the intention to allocate resources to maintenance teams, whose aim it is to minimise risk by the planned and sustained care of the plant.
Over time, this ‘gap’ could manifest as under investment or insufficient training as the result of financially-led decisions.
This cyndinic model points out where dimensions are insufficient and how significant the gaps are. These gaps must be reduced and the dimensions aligned to reduce risk. This can be achieved by increasing awareness, negotiation and communication between all the organisational networks involved.
A holistic approach drives all parties involved (from suppliers to end users, all organisations in between) and people at all levels of responsibility towards a common goal. That goal is to protect the business. There is no doubt that when a business is well protected, the capital, people and communities are also well protected.
To answer the question: “Why should businesses adopt a holistic approach to safety?”, proponents of this approach will control the technological risk of today’s increasingly complex industrial activities and raise the bar for their competitors, while securing their own sustained growth.v

Didier Turcinovic is President of the Safety Users Group (SUG).www.safetyusersgroup.com

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