Those who can, do; those who understand, explain…


It’s a scene familiar to many of us. The HAZOP chair asks “Are we comfortable that the safeguards you mentioned are sufficient against this hazard? Can you explain that to us?” The process engineer is now at the centre of attention, expected to have the facts at their fingertips. But it’s not a major crisis. The design is well done. The hazards, although complex, are understood, and the approach being taken may be novel to some, but is the right solution. So the answer is given, the team gives it consideration, the scribe records the discussion, and the process moves on.

    Many of us work in complex, high hazard industries. The application of safety in design, ergonomics, risk assessment, and process safety means that for the vast majority of time, the hazards stay as potential, not actual harm. We are degreequalified engineers, chartered, even fellows of our institutes. We play our part, get the job done. Within our offices, within the plant, within the technical bubble we work in, our jargon, our common understanding, our acronyms and buzzwords communicate to our peers, our operators, and sometimes our management, that we have our risks under control.

    Picture the same engineer, but this time at the local town hall. The new regulations being introduced across the EU in 2015 (Seveso III – see box), shaped by our experience and the experiences of our neighbouring countries, mean that the public will soon have access to more information about our high hazard plants, the substances we routinely deal with, the controls that we have in place. But our town hall engineer is now outside of the technical bubble, and their audience doesn’t have the knowledge and understanding they’re used to. They’re not unintelligent; they may well have complex jobs, managing complex situations. But SIL, LOPA, QRA are not part of their daily lives. They have no idea what a “mitigated event likelihood” is, or how we set and achieve a target. Chemical formulae and jargon may well make them feel stupid. Would that engineer be able to explain that all is under control?

    But that is exactly the challenge that Judith Hackitt set us at the Hazards 24 conference this May in Edinburgh, UK. We are the people who understand the risks, and deal with the balance of keeping risks as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP). And with our understanding, and our skills, we should be able to explain to the man or woman on the street how we can – and should – have facilities managing major accident hazards.

the cost of understanding

Author Lee LeFever makes explanation videos for a living. In his book, The Art of Explanation, he presents an A–Z scale of knowledge and understanding (see figure). We are topic experts. We sit in our bubble, at the WXYZ part of the scale. But the people we need to reach are back at the start of the scale, and with our jargon, impenetrable language, and science stuff, we leave them behind a large wall. The cost to them of understanding what we are talking about is huge. Why should they even bother trying?

    It should be simple: an explanation describes facts in a way that makes them understandable. But to make that explanation work, we need to have the ability and the courage to picture ourselves in another person’s shoes, and communicate to them from that perspective. However, a good explanation is not always easy. It needs to start from the context of what the audience can understand, and set the scene. If the concept is difficult, we need to find analogies to things people do understand, that don’t trivialise the issue, but do lower the cost of understanding.

    For example, we deal with the concept of ALARP across industries, and in many legal jurisdictions around the world. We all can grasp the concept that society does not seek to eliminate all risk. For us engineers, this means that we need to make the maximum impact that we can, but we don’t have infinite time or money to solve all the problems. And there’s only so far we can go. We can aspire towards zero harm, but the law recognises that’s not always possible.

    If we were to extend the ALARP concept to, say, speed limits, we wouldn’t necessarily end up with a strict hierarchy (in the UK for example) of 20 mph near schools, 30 mph in built-up areas, 60 mph on A-roads, and 70 mph on dual carriageways. When children are pouring out of school, we could do a lot of harm at less than 20 mph, and 10 minutes later do no harm at all at a higher speed. 60 mph would not be appropriate in freezing fog, or driving rain. If we happened to be all alone on a four-lane motorway in good conditions, we could probably safely drive at 100 mph or more with no consequences for us or for the rest of the world.

    Our safety case regime means we take an approach to the hazards, in this case the speed, that’s proportionate to the risk. We look at the kind of risks we want to control, like we might plan our journey past that school, and onto the motorway. We think about the likely scenarios we would face, and whether our local situation would influence the likelihood of snow, ice, and rain. We would examine the features of our car, and how its design, control and safety systems would help us with the journey. We would publish our case to the regulator about how we would keep the risks on this journey to a sufficiently low level to meet our expectations, and the expectations of the wider society. We would have to keep the regulator informed about this for as long as we were planning to carry out such journeys. As an aside, the US state of Montana did operate an ALARP speed limit regime, which asserted that “A person ... shall drive the vehicle ... at a rate of speed no greater than is reasonable and proper under the conditions existing at the point of operation ... so as not to unduly or unreasonably endanger the life, limb, property, or other rights of a person entitled to the use of the street or highway.” American case law does not however share the UK legal tradition of ‘reasonableness’, and this approach was ruled unconstitutional in 1998.

    Our hypothetical example meanwhile illustrates that while ALARP can be impenetrable for some, with a little creativity, we could develop explanations for people that would help them over the high cost barrier, let them understand why they should care about what we do, and put them in the market for better information on the risks. But such explanations are not readily available for us to cut and paste. We need to generate these as industries, as professions.

overcoming NIMBY

It’s not hard to imagine the consequences if we don’t. While we are all closer to some major hazard sites than we may realise, we can all be guilty of relegating them to the “someone else is looking after that so we’re alright” category. In my 16-mile commute to Aberdeen, I cross three major pipelines, but don’t think too much about the management of that risk. And on these small islands, if we don’t do our jobs well, we may well end up beyond NIMBY (‘not in my back yard’), to what politician Stephen Norris called BANANA (‘build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody’). Engineers, wherever they are in the world, can’t afford for that to happen.

    The challenge is out there. We need to explain better, and we need to think more about how we explain. We know we are professionals, that we are part of amazing industries doing fundamentally important things, maintaining life and living standards for many. We all have ‘explainer’ in our job titles, whether we want to or not.

Conor Crowley leads Atkins’ safety team in Aberdeen; Karen Blanc is process engineering manager at Atkins.

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