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The New PSM Normal (7) — Things Feel Different

June 3, 2020

Person thinking about process safety in a changing world

In the post SEMS and Risk in 2020 (SEMS if the offshore equivalent of process safety management as applied to U.S. deepwater operations — mostly the Gulf of Mexico), Mick Will, says,

The speed with which drastic change has come over our industry is what is so different from past events. While oil price volatility has been something I have dealt with for 42 years, I do not remember change happening so fast. I talk to operators who are evaluating what interventions they need to take just to stay in business, with the luxury of long term planning being something they are hoping for in the months to come. This one “feels” different than past ones to me.

I suggest that this feeling of everything being different goes beyond the PSM/SEMS world. In the United States, 30 million people have lost their jobs in just a few months. Even if the virus problem can be solved, we are not going back to Business as Usual; we will not have a V-shaped recovery. In fact, it is quite possible that we will head into a period of prolonged deflation, which, if it continues for long enough, becomes a Depression (see The New PSM Normal (1) — Deflation).

Even some social issues “feel” different. The tragedy of the recent event in Minneapolis has created a response such as we have not seen before. Will that response lead to permanent change? Well, only time will tell, but it does feel different.

When faced with so much change, particularly change that is taking place so quickly, it is easy to become worried and discouraged. Indeed, we do need to be realistic — there are plenty of intractable problems ahead off us. But, when the working environment is changing so drastically, there may be an opportunity to develop new initiatives and better ways of working.

On a much smaller scale, we saw deep shifts in the way that the process industries think about safety about 30 years ago. At that time the chemical industry, in particular, had developed a reputation for being hazardous. Probably the Bhopal event of 1984 was the “highlight” event that generated this feeling. The incident led to the deaths of more than 2,500 people in the local community, and many more serious injuries. (Even if the event was started by a malicious act, the failure of safety systems contributed greatly to the final death toll.) Out of this sense that “something must change” came the widespread development and application of process safety programs in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Maybe we are at a similar “hinge in time” now — a time when some fundamental changes can be made to the ways in which we manage industrial safety because so much else is changing around us.

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