Process Safety: An Hegelian Dialectic

Georg Hegel

Georg Hegel (1770-1831)


The thoughts of the German philosopher Georg Hegel are complex and his writing style was hardly succinct. However one of the concepts that he developed – his version of dialectic – is both simple and useful. It is shown in Figure 1.

Hegelian Synthesis

Figure 1

A system starts in an initial condition: the Thesis. In reaction to this Thesis an Antithesis develops. From each of these a Synthesis is created; it is rooted in both Thesis and the Antithesis, but is not identical to either.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps

Napoleon Crossing the Alps

An example commonly used to illustrate this concept is the political world of late eighteenth century France. The Thesis was the aristocratic, monarchical government (l’ancien régime). It was replaced by its Antithesis: the Republican government (aux lanternes). These two systems were replaced in turn by the Synthesis: the Napoleonic Empire, which had roots in both of its predecessors but was identical to neither.

The world of process plant safety can be looked at in the same way, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2

The Thesis is Occupational Safety, which started in a formally in the 1960s. Then came Process Safety in the late 1980s with its own dynamic and organization, as was amply demonstrated in the Baker report to do with the Texas City explosion.

Both of these approaches to safety have been effective but may now be suffering from diminishing returns – particularly Occupational Safety as illustrated in Figure 3, which is taken from a report issued by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) — the agency that has regulatory authority over the Outer Continental Shelf of the United States. The chart shows trends in Occupational Safety — mostly for offshore rigs and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Figure 3

Figure 3

It is important not to read too much into the trends for as short a time as the last three years, but it does appear as if the steady and impressive improvements that we have observed since the late 1990s have flattened out and may even be inching up. If this trend continues then it could be that the industry has reached an asymptote. Most companies have an explicit safety goal of “no incidents” — yet risk can never be zero; further improvements will be hard to achieve, at least using current management techniques.

So how is safety to be further improved? Work on Occupational and Process Safety will continue, of course, but it appears as if fresh approaches are needed; in other words, an Hegelian “Safety Synthesis” is called for.

Plato and Aristotle

Discussions to do with philosophy may appear to be abstract, dry and of little relevance to the working process safety professional. But philosophies are part of what we are; they shape the way we think – whether we know it or not. Philosophies matter, particularly when change is called for. Therefore it is useful to consider the philosophical roots of process safety.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle

Process safety draws on the thinking of three western philosophical thinkers: Plato, Aristotle and Augustine. The above picture – which is a detail from The School of Athens by Raphael from the year 1509 – shows Aristotle (on the right) with his mentor Plato. Plato points toward the heaven, thus expressing his view of the mystical nature of the universe and the concept of ideals, whereas Aristotle has his hand level to the Earth symbolizing his realistic view of the world .

Below is the complete picture. (The man in the foreground who is gazing at the floor in despair looks as if he has sat through one too many HAZOPs.)

Plato and Aristotle



Alfred North Whitehead

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

Plato (429-347 BCE) developed a philosophy based on ideals (theory of forms). Thus I am writing this post on a computer which, sooner or later (probably sooner) will wind up on a trash heap. However, “out there” is an “ideal” concept of computer which will never decay.

The following process safety statements are Platonic:

  • Our goal is zero defects
  • Within five business days of the date of this letter, the Chief Executive Office of ABC Corporation must certify that the ABC Corporation has, since <date>, been operating in accordance with its SEMS program. The certification should include that statement that “I understand that the submission of false statements to the United Sates is a criminal offense under 18 U.S.C. Section 1001″

Both the above statements represent an ideal that should be worked toward but which can never be fully realized.


Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was what we would now call “data driven”; he was realistic. Although he studied under Plato he moved away from the concept of ideals to a world that is discovered by observation. (However, he did not develop the idea of experimentation — that had to wait until the 13th century and the work of men such as Richard Grossteste and Roger Bacon ).

The following quotation from Aristotle forms the basis of behavior-based safety.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.

People will sometimes ask, “Do you believe in global warming?” or “Do you believe in Peak Oil?” The most sensible response to such questions is Aristotlean, i.e., to say, “I don’t either believe or disbelieve in such phenomena — I merely look at the data and draw the appropriate conclusions”.

Process safety statements such as the following fit within Aristotle’s philosophy.

  • Safety is behavior based.
  • There’s no cure for stupid.
  • We don’t have the money for that.

Augustine of Hippo

Hippo-1St. Augustine (354-430 AD) lived at a time when the Roman empire was crumbling; his world was one of violence and decline.

One of his philosophies is that all human beings are corrupt and bad – at least some of the time. Put in the context of process safety, people will lie during incident investigations, pencil-whip log sheets and hide problems with alcohol and drugs. Welcome to the human race.

Process safety statements that align with this approach are:

  • The safety results are “massaged” — everyone knows that.
  • I nearly opened the wrong valve, but it wasn’t really a near miss so I won’t say anything.
  • My supervisor told me to do this. I don’t think it’s safe, but I’ll go ahead anyway — I can’t afford to lose this job.

So What?

The above discussion is all well and good, but what does it mean to a process safety professional at 8 o’clock on Monday morning?

A true philosopher would not accept the validity of such a question. It is not the purpose of philosophy to be useful. Nevertheless, thinking through the nature of the Hegelian synthesis shown in Figure 2 some thoughts and questions to consider are:

  • Is a goal of “zero incidents” meaningful or achievable?
  • What is the meaning of acceptable risk (ALARP)?
  • Given that humans are always involved in design, construction and operations, must we assume that some things are bound to go wrong due to human failings?

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4 Responses to Process Safety: An Hegelian Dialectic

  1. Hysteria says:

    I was with you right to the end – but I couldn’t quite figure out the relationship between the “So What” and the preceding text ! (Maybe that’s why I am an engineer). But I fully agree that the overlap between OHS and PSM is very large – indeed I often say “we can do the science its the humans that are the problem”

  2. Mervyn Sher says:

    “■Given that humans are always involved in design, construction and operations, must we assume that some things are bound to go wrong due to human failings?”

    Why must they be failings? What about “Given that humans are foreven involved int he creative pursuit of design, construction and operations, it is expected that mistakes and even catastrophic errors will aid in our learning process. “?

    • Hysteria says:

      I tend to agree – it is too easy to describe things as “human failkings” when in fact they are a natural and inevitable part of the human condition

      “All men are liable to error; and most men are, in many points, by passion or interest, under temptation to it.”

      John Locke – English philosopher 1632 – 1704

  3. Excellent writing. Like your Style very much.
    At the same time something else came up to my mind.
    With more sticker safety features more critical process will be developed (Thesis Anti-Thesis)
    And more catastrophic situations could be synthesized??

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