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Process Safety and Covid-19

The process safety risks in high-hazard operations have not gone away during the coronavirus crisis. On the contrary, the pandemic may seriously impair our ability to understand and manage those risks. Here’s why: a key defence against catastrophic failure lies in preventing, or at least minimising, the divergence between Work as Imagined and Work as Done. If these two drift apart, decisions end up being made on things like manpower, work processes and technology which ignore the reality of what actually happens on site – with obvious implications for process safety. Many organisations, particularly in oil and gas, quite rightly use leadership field visits as a bulwark against this drift to divergence, deploying them in a way where leaders visit sites not to check compliance, but to better understand the dangers inherent in the operation and to gain a deeper understanding of the effectiveness of existing defences. In a Covid-19 world, there is already a tendency for leaders to visit sites less frequently, and – when they do make it to the platform, construction site, process plant or factory – social distancing makes it more difficult to establish the empathy, trust and rapport with front-line staff which is essential to getting a clear, full and honest picture of Work as Done.

How can leaders respond to this challenge? There is no panacea, but there are a number of groundrules which can help, and a number of bear-traps which must be avoided. First the bear-traps. The most important of these is the belief that field visits can be conducted on Zoom. They can’t. Virtual interactions with the front-line are fine for conveying messages, but pretty much useless for building any kind of sensitivity to operations. So ground-rule number one is: challenge that travel ban which organisations default to in periods of crisis. Instead, go the other way and increase leadership visibility and presence – vital in any case at a time when many front-line employees and contractors will be worried about their futures. Second, avoid ceremonial visits designed to rally the troops. Be there to listen, whether it’s listening to the concerns of the workforce about job security, or listening for the weak signals in the system that may be precursors of process safety dangers. Indeed, these two topics of conversation are inter-twined, as disruption to normal systems of work is well-known as a risk driver in relation to process safety.

Thirdly, in a socially-distanced conversation conducted at two-metre range, it is harder to fall back on traditional behavioural skills in order to establish empathy and trust. This means there is a greater premium on the quality and construction of the questions which leaders ask, and on what they do with the responses they get. Preparation on framing genuine enquiry, treating the people on the tools as respected experts, and demonstrating humility as a leader are all essential features of effective site visits in a time of coronavirus. And following through with actions becomes even more critical. Operations leaders in high-hazard industries have a tough job at the best of times. Today it’s tougher still, with the pandemic necessitating a constant stream of decisions on strategy, costs, people and on the operational challenge of creating a Covid-secure work environment. At the same time, the process safety dangers inherent in high-hazard activities have not diminished. Visible, felt leadership is more important than ever as a protection against catastrophic safety failure.