Deadly, damaging & dramatic

Deadly, damaging & dramatic

The question that international Health & Safety expert, Toby Hayward poses, in this article, is how fire safety is dealt with in high hazard projects and industries. To do this he covers some lessons learned as well as some approaches many will be familiar with. He also endeavours to highlight some areas that, in his opinion, require some further attention as well as some that need to be examined in more depth.

Major projects is a very subjective term. For a small community in the countryside, a new road or new fresh water well can be a major project. Often causing debate and sometimes a visceral reaction to a change in the way of life of the community.

In the Middle East we talk of major projects in billions of dollars, or if you are a safety professional, how many people you have on site. Sometimes we have a comparison to another project, “the largest …. in the world.” Having been involved in many of these during my time in the region it is easy to forget that these are not “normal” globally. We are exposed to challenges and conditions that many safety and fire professionals will never be exposed.

As such, the major projects that we refer to are going to be those that those of us in the Middle East are used too. Workforce in the region of 20,000 upwards, multi-billion dollar project budget and short timescale pressure accompanied by an economic need and high public profile.

As to the industries covered I shall examine, although briefly, the petrochemical industry, the burgeoning nuclear industry (one in which I reside) and the construction industry.

This subject is worthy of much more discourse and examination and I hope that this article will help to spark this interest amongst the regional professionals. The more we discuss the better we will all become.

Are there are any differences?

High hazard industries. An interesting term. From a public perspective it brings into mind the plumes of smoke and fire from Piper Alpha, Deep Water Horizon, the collapse of “Big Blue” and even the nuclear plume over Chernobyl. Even to the extent that parents discourage their offspring from entering these “hazardous” industries, promoting the safety of an “Office job”.

For most of us in these industries, it means something very different. The above examples are discussed at length, from your first day, the risks are openly understood and there is not one person who acts without the knowledge of their actions on the plant, the workforce and the community as a whole. We have a lot of time and money on “health and safety culture” of one approach or another. We have of course had our failures and we ensure that the lessons learned are briefed regularly and openly to all staff, no matter their rank.

The construction industry is often seen as a different beast. Everything from the man in a white van to large conglomerates who build communities. However, when it comes to the major projects construction not only enforces its own cultures on the civil projects but we must remember that they often work closely within the petrochemical and nuclear industries, in fact they are a necessity! Therefore they also work within our own cultures and are expected to act appropriately.

As we spend so much on these efforts within our spheres of influence we could often argue that personnel are safer within our “control” or “fence” than when out and about in public! However, we must acknowledge that when we have an incident within these industries they are dramatic, tragic and inordinately costly.

The level of risk to companies and often countries, reputation is very high. Safety is suddenly cheap when it is compared to the loss of faith in a brand, the court costs and the bad publicity that a major accident can cause. There are few major companies that have gone through their life without such an incident and I am sure you can name more than one.

Now when it comes to fire safety, I am sure we all agree that fire is not only deadly and damaging, but is also dramatic. We have moved swiftly from the USSR approach to public relations in 1986 when whilst the accident in Chernobyl occurred on the 25-26th April it was not until radiation levels were detected in the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, over 1000 km away did the following announcement reach the Soviet public:

“There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up” Vremya, 28th April 1986 {21:00}.

Today the ongoing fire will be on Twitter in minutes, YouTube within half an hour and commented on online internationally in about the same timeframe.

Therefore it is an imperative that companies need to invest in the management of their communications message to the public. Especially in the complex world of social media and amateur reporting. To ignore this is to allow the story to evolve without your reality. Something that can gain momentum to a point that whatever you say to dispute the narrative will be dismissed. Undesirable to say the least!

Direct and indirect costs

The costs associated with any fire can be separated into direct and indirect costs. The loss of reputation and brand value, as discussed above, would be indirect. The physical replacement of structures, buildings, court cases and compensation can be considered direct.

It can be in a company’s best interest to be upfront with expenditure to rectify the effects of an accident, especially if it directly effects the public. Sometimes it can be seen as an admission of guilt. Just ask the Board of BP regarding their payments in the Deepwater Horizon accident and the public reaction that it fostered.

Therefore we must be honest with each other when we discuss the actual worst case scenario that can occur within our respective industries. Then we can begin to work within our organisations to determine our responses and the associated costs. For some, this will mean the possible share loss/restructuring/selling of the company. A scenario that is hard to get executives to admit but one with significant precedent (Union Carbide – Bhopal).

Geophysical relationships

Lastly I shall examine the high level geopolitical relationships in which many of these industries are involved. To be able to operate, purchase fuel, export product etc. many of the industries are interlinked with geopolitical partners. Taking the above into account a fire event that is well publicised, even without a loss of life, can greatly effect trust within these relationships.

Even for me, when I get the weekly LinkedIn request for my CV I respond with “How does your Board view Health and Safety?” So how do we think that a geopolitical partner will feel about their brand being shown in the foreground whilst an inferno rages in the background? It would certainly not fill you with confidence that your investment and product are in safe hands!

Again, communication is often key in these scenarios. Being able to relay confirmed information from the incident commander in the field to the shareholders and stakeholders in good time help to manage these relationships. To shut them down could cause irreparable damage.

What have we learned?

So what have we learnt from some of these past events and what should we improve going forward?

Prevention is always going to be better than cure. So a focus on fire loading at not only the design stage but through construction and operation is certainly key. Control of ignition sources is a constant battle in construction but can be achieved with a realistic approach to smoking habits and a professional approach to recruitment and training of welders and electricians.

Consistent and regular training of all staff as to the fire risks at site can also have a positive effect, as well as fire extinguisher supply and training, beyond a dedicated fire watch and into the supervisory workforce.

Field response teams are key when it comes to the management of a major incident. The level of recruitment and professionalism here is what can make a huge difference to life and incident damage reduction. Further, consistent communication to the Executive during scenarios needs to be drilled again and then again.

I will always be a proponent of solid three-way communication. The understanding of our risks, the means that we intend to address them and the acceptance that we are not infallible are key to any risk management strategy. None of us know everything {in fact I consider those that think they do an inherent danger!} and we must reach out to all of our internal and external stakeholders to gain their insights as to how we can be better. No idea is stupid, unless you keep it to yourself!

To my friends in the “normal” world I say this, learn from our mistakes as well. Organisations are not driven by their technology or complexity, they are driven by their people. There are lessons on organisational failure and management is all of the accidents mentioned above that are pertinent to all.

Let’s continue to work together for the safety of the public, our staff, our organisations and the facilities in which we work.