Process Safety and The Human Factor


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As a young engineer my first large control engineering project was for an automotive paint system in the English Midlands. Unlike many of the videos we see today where robots swarm around unfinished cars in a carefully orchestrated mechanical ballet, in these systems car bodies moved past a series of electrically charged spray nozzles. The control system was responsible to put the right amount of paint on cars at the right time. There was a lot of stored data which was editable by the operator. Accessing the correct data depending on the type of car and its intended paint color was a challenge for the programmer. Understanding what was going on at any given time was even more of a challenge for the plant personnel who would eventually have to live with these systems.

It was this experience coupled with an EPA driven auto paint plant modernization trend which bought me a ticket to the US in 1985. We installed a number of these systems and all was well until we noticed a more disturbing trend of our own.  Systems we’d installed and commissioned were generating countless service calls. We were flying across the US on emergency activities because the local plant maintenance personnel could not maintain their new systems. Together with our customers we’d forgotten to invest the time building staff competencies with these new systems so once customers were alone they couldn’t maintain them. They lacked the competencies needed to troubleshoot downtime events. We had all forgotten the human factor.

Fast forward a few years and the company I work for now is a leading expert in Process Safety. I can’t help but remember my early days when plant productivity depended so directly on making sure plant staff had the necessary skills to understand their new systems.  Today I realize that there are much worse things that can happen than lost production when one considers the potential effects of the human factor on plant safety.

The day after the integrators and contractors are gone and you are alone with your new equipment, one poorly trained person can cause serious injury or death and reduce your operation to rubble in less than a few minutes…

With safety it’s much easier to verify that the installed technology is up to standard than it is to make sure the people running it have all the right skills and certifications for operating and maintaining the plant. It is therefore essential for plant managers to pay particular attention to the knowledge and competencies of their engineers and operators.

Managing competencies at the right level for your plant is the express responsibility of the management team in any process safety organization. And managers must be confident that their people are ready to handle all the steps involved – the planned, and even more importantly, the unexpected.

So the message here is clear. Don’t forget the human factor. In industry all systems and technology can function exactly as designed but any human error caused by lack of training can cause a catastrophe. For process safety there are standards and systems which must be in place but don’t neglect the training or the consequences could be far worse than increased service revenue and engineers living in airports.

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