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Failure is ALWAYS an option but NEVER a choice

October 17, 2016

I've just completed my first skydive from 10,000 ft (as you can guess it was successful, otherwise I wouldn't be here to write this) and during this amazing experience, the similarities with Process Safety Management were obvious.

A few months ago, I trained for a static-line jump (because I wanted to be in control) where the parachute (technical term is 'canopy' but I'll shorten to 'chute') is deployed by a line attached to the plane at one end and the rig (on the jumper) at the other end. You typically have a 4 second period of free-fall before the chute opens and thereafter you are in control of the descent and the landing.

Straight away you can see this is like a Process Plant, where it's most vulnerable when starting (leaving the plane with potential for chute malfunction) and when stopping (the homo sapiens | terra firma interaction i.e. the landing - remember it's not the fall that kills you).

To reduce the risk, we spent the vast majority of the training rehearsing these critical phases and this was done under normal (unstressed - on the ground) and abnormal (stressed - where we were suspended in mid-air and violently shaken by our fellow trainees to simulate an uncontrolled fall) conditions. It reminded me of my RGIT offshore survival training in the early 90's when (among other exercises) we completed HUET (Helicopter Underwater Escape Training) - just less wet and the right way up.

So here's your Emergency Response Plan in action - do you carry it out calmly & conveniently with a reasonable amount of planning (e.g. you've notified the participants & first responders in advance) and then proudly conclude it was a 'job well done' and park it for another year or so, or do you make it As Real As Reasonably Practicable, when nobody expects it and your people and equipment are either unavailable or unprepared. That incident that's waiting to happen isn't going to let you get your act together ...

Be prepared for the worst, do not just hope for the best

We were taught about the different 'damage limitation' options if we had to land outside the target area - this includes buildings, power-lines, water and animals (bulls are bad, cows are curious, sheep are scared and horses are hesitant) and the different safety measures that were available to us.

Basically there is only one safety measure - a reserve chute - that can be deployed in different ways;

  • Manually - the jumper first has to cut away the main chute and then opening the reserve. This is single redundancy and you have to carry out these actions in the right order in the right time under stress.

  • Automatically - an AAD (AUTOMATIC ACTIVATION DEVICE) cuts away the main and deploys the reserve if the rate of descent is too fast below a certain height. You can see how this could result in a spurious trip (we were warned not to do dramatic turns during our approach to avoid activating the AAD)

This second method employs a Safety Instrumented System that needs to be properly and regularly maintained i.e calibrated and tested. A functional test is done by both simulation (in a Portable Altitude Test Chamber) and 'online' by dummy drop tests (using a dummy not a person) and live-jump tests (using a person not a dummy). How representative are your Proof Tests ?

Either way, it is possible for the main chute not to disengage and you have to descend with both chutes in place - again we were taught how to deal with that depending on the position (side-by-side or ) of the chutes. You could consider this as a double jeopardy situation but shit does happen and you need to be ready.

So, I was ready for action but (as this was British summertime) I was let down by the weather and was unable to jump that day and had to postpone (several times). There are guidelines (requirements) on the currency of your training and depending on how long ago you undertook your last training, the amount and type of refresher training and testing (I forgot to mention we had to also pass an exam) varied.

How do you ensure that personnel training (particularly for critical roles/task) is up to date and do you ask those people to demonstrate their knowledge to prove their capabilities ?

Competence is critical in this type of high risk environment and I (perhaps naively) unconditionally put my trust in those who assembled and packed the chute, who trained me to jump & land and the pilot. I was told that they were all certified and that certification required many many hours of extensive theory, practice and examination. I say naively as I didn't check that the certificate matched the person and that their certificates were in date - is that my job ? would I know what a valid certificate looked like ? I resigned myself to put my faith (and leave my fate) to those who manage and audit these facilities and operations, and the point here is that those who perform audits or assessments must know what they are looking for - tick box enthusiasm is a poor substitute for experienced, independent, objective scrutiny.


At this point I must confess to my own reservations. In the time between training and jumping, I reflected on my own competence and concluded that perhaps a static-line jump was too "risky" (I am, after all, responsible for my own income now and if I can't walk, I can't work) so I opted for a tandem jump which I was initially wary about as I didn't want to leave my destiny (descent) to somebody else and had visions of looking like this...

But - in the words of Dr Pepper - what's the worst that could happen ?

Sep 2016 (UK)
Aug 2016 (US)


Surely these are just 'outliers' ?

These stats are from the US, and the UK are similar ball-park (football-pitch) numbers but where do I set my own tolerable risk and how do I gauge if the trend is rising upwards from the low in 2009 ?.

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."


I put all that to the back of my mind (or bottom of my pants) and went for it and exposed myself to genuine risk for the first time in a long time (I'm a desk jockey now - I never go out in "the wild"). But consider this - how many of the casualties of process safety incidents have been designers or consultants who underestimated the threat and/or overestimated the protection ? We are trusted to identify hazards, assess risks and evaluate controls and if we don't get it right, people we probably don't know are vulnerable.

Failure may be an option - but those exposed to it don't always have a choice


I leave you with these thoughts...


  • If you pay peanuts - you get Monkeys

  • If you pay beans - you get Cowboys

  • If you think a Professional is expensive - try an Amateur

Which leads quite neatly into the classic Trevor Kletz quote ...

If you think Safety is expensive, try an Accident.

In the real world, budgets are limited so whilst you do generally get what you paid for - at least know and understand the limitations and performance of the protection measures you can afford and make appropriate compensation for any shortfall in risk reduction by other means.

Finally, if you've been amazed by my antics or amused by my anecdotes, please think about those who face the real and present danger of death (and not just at 1x10-5/yr) from cancer. Please donate at www.standuptocancer.org.uk (if you are one of Queen Elizabeth's commoners) or www.standup2cancer.org (if you are one of King George's colonials) or www.standup2cancer.ca (if you are both) or at your local/national cancer charity - Many thanks.

Thanks to Tony and the team at Tilstock



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