“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”  — Samuel Johnson

COVID-19, with its 14-day – fortnight – incubation period has had the effect of concentrating some of the best minds in the world.

I have read several articles recently where the authors suggest how the methods and approaches to managing process safety can be applied to tackling the pandemic. I’m pleased to see what our industry has spent decades learning about chemical process hazards being brought to bear on this global scourge.

It occurs to me, though, that a lot of thought is going into tackling the pandemic and that there may be lessons or reminders there that we can apply to managing process safety.

Don’t Ignore Early Warning Signs

Problems rarely happen without warning. There are signs. It is so easy, though, to ignore them or dismiss them as aberrations. One does not have to be a tasseomancer, reading the tea leaves of a chemical process, to recognize the signs of a problem. Odors, leaks, headaches, small fires. They are signs of worse things to come and an invitation to do something while there is still time.

The communities that have done the best in dealing with COVID-19 are the communities that have recognized the problem early and rather than denying that they have a problem, have addressed it quickly and wholeheartedly. Not in half measures that served only to make people feel better that someone was doing something. Sure, addressing the problem comes at a high cost, but not addressing the problem comes at a higher cost. Admittedly, it’s hard to decide to do something when the cost of doing something is concrete and high, while at the same time the benefits are nebulous and maybe would happen anyway. But problems don’t really fix themselves, whether a health crisis or process safety.

We are all aware of process safety programs that have finally been implemented, but only after someone has died. Instead of “never again”, though, we need to keep our attention on striving for “never”.

PPE is Important

I don’t imagine that anyone reading this piece can even remember when they didn’t know what “PPE” stood for. Now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, I imagine that everyone in the world knows that PPE stands for personal protective equipment: the items that we wear to act as barriers between us and something bad.

PPE is a standard item in the process industries. If you are like me, you would feel naked if you walked into a process area without wearing safety boots, safety glasses, and a hard hat. That, despite knowing that PPE is at the very bottom of the hierarchy of hazard controls, outranked by elimination, substitution, engineering controls, safe work practices, and administrative controls, in that order. As much as we would all like simply to eliminate SARS-CoV-2, though, that is not an option that is available to us.

So it is with chemical hazards. We can turn to hazard controls further up the hierarchy as much as possible, but let’s face it, we use PPE because sometimes there is just no other way to effectively address a hazard.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of many things about PPE:

  • PPE doesn’t work if we don’t have it, or don’t wear it properly when we do have it. Just as having a mask pulled down around your throat doesn’t do you or anyone else any good, wearing goggle up on your hard hat isn’t going to protect your eyes.
  • PPE does not bestow invincibility. All PPE has limited effectiveness, even when worn correctly.
  • PPE must be fit to the task. Safety boots, safety glasses, and a hard hat, despite being required almost universally in the chemical process industries, are often not enough.
  • PPE does not last forever. At some point any piece of PPE will no longer work as intended. Plastic hard hat shells become brittle and crack and their suspensions fray and tear. The toes of safety shoes wear through. Respirator cartridges become saturated with whatever they are designed to absorb. It is important have PPE and it is just as important to inspect it routinely.

To Effectively Address a Hazard, You Must Understand It

Our understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 has evolved since they first broke out of Wuhan, China in December 2019. Along the way, guesses and suppositions were taken to be facts, hypotheses were tested and then confirmed or rejected. Some regions have made sure to understand the extent of the problem, not because knowing the extent of the problem helps any one individual, but because knowing the extent of the problem helps to understand the problem. Others haven’t invested in understanding the problem, hoping that failing to measure the extent and nature of the problem meant it wasn’t really there.

When a pipe starts leaking, its not enough to stop the leak, to address the symptoms. Process safety demands that we understand why it is leaking and where else other piping might be on the verge of leaking. It’s one thing to hope the leak is an aberration, another thing entirely to act as if you know it is an aberration. It is only by understanding why the piping is leaking that we have any hope of actually addressing the problem, as big as it may be.

We’re All in This Together

As the pandemic has spread, we have all heard again and again that “We’re all in this together.” Usually, it’s meant to be encouraging, to remind people that while the safe work practice of social distancing has the effect of isolating us, we are not alone. There are also two other aspects, though, that apply to managing process safety.

The first is that solutions can come from anywhere and are coming from everywhere. Addressing the pandemic is not just a problem to be left to the experts to fix, and “let us know when you’ve solved it, thank you very much.” People from all walks of life are looking at the pandemic and figuring out what they can do, and then doing it.

Everyone in the chemical enterprise has a stake in managing process safety as well. Managing process safety is not simply an area to be left to process safety specialists, but something that everyone to which everyone has a contribution to make.

The second is the darker flip side of the first. Just as solutions can come from anywhere. So can problems. When someone decides that process safety is not their problem, they become a problem. When someone decides that doing the right thing, the safe thing, is just not something they are worried about or believe necessary, it is not just their safety they are compromising, but the safety everyone. And they don’t get to decide who the victims of their indifference will be. We are seeing in real time how this is true for COVID-19. It has always been true for process safety.

Experience is a Hard Teacher

Vernon Sanders Law famously said, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” The COVID-19 pandemic is an especially hard teacher, but there are lessons there for us to learn. At some point, this pandemic, too, will pass. Not in the next couple of weeks, not even in the next couple of months. A vaccine will be developed, and things will adjust to a new, post-pandemic normal. I hope we will have learned. The lessons we are learning now are lessons we can all take with us into the plant, lessons we can apply to process safety. This experience has come at a high cost. Let’s learn from it.