Perfect Safety

Just a short post this week. I was away from the office without an Internet connection. It was great.

Last week’s post, Process Safety: An Hegelian Dialectic, generated a useful discussion to do with the concept of zero incidents or perfect safety. Some of the thoughts expressed by myself and others are discussed below.

The Third Law



The Third Law of Thermodynamics states that it is impossible for any system to reduce its entropy to zero in a finite number of operations. A safety incident is an example of a system that is not in a zero entropy state, i.e., one that is not perfectly ordered. And it makes sense. No person is perfect, no organization is perfect. No matter how much time, effort and money and goodwill we spend on improving safety, incidents will occur. We live in the real world of Aristotle and Augustine — not that of Plato and his ideal forms.

Looked at in this light, perfect safety can never happen. Nevertheless we should strive toward it because otherwise we accept that people will be injured — which is something that none of us want or accept, and we certainly do not want to quantify.

Amjad Al-Ata, who clearly knows much more about dialectics than I ever will, makes the interesting point that, while zero incidents for all time may be an unrealizable goal, it is possible to set such a goal for a limited time frame. Gary Melrose notes that, “Incidents are our friends, properly reported.”

Everyone at the facility should understand that our aim is no incidents, but we do not need to make a big fuss about it; we honor the goal through our actions. The comment from Deb Grubbe, “People understand ‘the Zero Intent,’ and they are looking for it from the management. The issue is putting your money and time and resources where your mouth is. It is not zero that is wrong; it is the execution” expresses this concept best.

In an “opening observation” Nick Gardener states, “In my experience, currently there does seem to be an empirical limit to what is achievable in the long run . . . Now let me be clear, I am not suggesting we accept that a TRIR of 1 is acceptable. Far from it. But if I read you correctly, we need to look at other ways to improve safety”.


Perfection as a Slogan

Safety First

Even if we are striving for a zero safety record, I do not like — and I am certainly not motivated — by slogans such as Accidents Big or Small, Avoid them All. Maybe it’s because I once spent a considerable amount of time in a European communist country starting up a chemical plant — I became thoroughly inoculated against propaganda.

In the same vein, I personally dislike cute safety slogans such as A Good Safety Record Doesn’t Come by Accident or Know Safety, No Pain. No Safety, Know Pain. I find it difficult to believe that such slogans really change people’s behavior. But maybe that’s because I’m an engineer. Also, such slogans seem to over-simplify a discipline that requires dedication, hard work, education, imagination and a substantial investment.

Safety Statistics

BSEE safety statistics

The post and the subsequent discussions did not cover the issue of safety statistics, nor how they should be used. This is a big topic that merits at least one post of its own. There is certainly a need to track statistics (indeed, they are the basis of the BSEE chart shown in the post that started this discussion). But I for one dislike the publicity sometimes associated with those statistics.

For example, a large sign at the front gate of a facility showing the number of days since a lost-time injury does not, it seems to me, change the behavior of the workers at that facility. Indeed, it may encourage them to cover up events that really should have been reported. Or to be cynical about the reporting system.

Thanks to all for their comments and feedback. I learn more every day.

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