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I'm only human... Don't put the blame on me!

May 29, 2017

 Or to more fully quote the big guy...


"I'm only human, I make mistakes
I'm only human, That's all it takes
To put the blame on me - Don't put the blame on me"


At Hazards27 (and many events before and I suspect many after) the biggest "culprit" in major accident hazards is acknowledged to be human factors, however as Trevor Kletz succinctly puts it...


"To say accidents are due to human failing is like saying falls are due to gravity."


Competence is always a hot topic, however I suggest that being a Suitably Qualified and Experienced Person (SQEP) is only part of the challenge, as:

  • COMPETENCE equips a person to perform specified tasks;

  • CULTURE encourages that person to do it well;

  • CONDITIONS enable that person to do it safely

Competence is driven from the task upwards i.e. it resists the individual who needs the necessary qualities to overcome the challenge.


Culture (generally considered to be "what we do when no-one is looking") is driven from the top down i.e. set by management, ideally by example.


Conditions come at us from the side - either as professional pressure or personal problems. These could be physiological (e.g. overwork) or psychological (e.g. worries).


Like the reliability of Safety Instrumented Functions (or other equipment) Competence, Culture and Conditions degrade and must be recovered or reset at regular intervals. Ian Travers gave us the analogy that your average person has got SIL 3 enthusiasm & effectiveness on Monday morning then degrades as the week goes on i.e. SIL 2 on Tue, SIL 1 on Wed, SIL 0/a on Thu and then on Friday they're not contributing anything. Sound familiar ?


Textbook guidance for Competence (e.g. HSE Managing competence for safety-related systems) defines it as follows:


For a person to be competent, they need qualifications, experience, and qualities appropriate to their duties. These include:

  • such training as would ensure acquisition of the necessary knowledge of the field for the tasks that they are required to perform.

  • adequate knowledge of the hazards and failures of the equipment for which they are responsible

  • knowledge and understanding of the working practices used in the organisation for which they work

  • the ability to communicate effectively with their peers, with any staff working under their supervision, and with their supervisors

  • an appreciation of their own limitations and constraints, whether of knowledge, experience, facilities, resources, etc., and a willingness to point these out.

This last point is vital, for it should give the weary, confused individual who knows what they don't know, a veto to opt out of carrying out work that they are not (or are no longer) proficient to perform.


At one of my presentations, I concluded with (somewhat provocatively) challenging the audience to guess how many consultants & engineers had been killed in some of the most high profile major accident hazards of recent memory. The (perhaps not unsurprising) statistics are as follows:


Piper Alpha (1988) 167 Fatalities

  • 1 Consultant (Diving)

  • 9 Engineers

Texas City (2005) 25 Fatalitiesº

  • 1 Consultant (QC)

  • 1 Engineer

ºVictim data is sketchy and common decency precludes too much investigation, however one of the most harrowing facts is the loss of life of a married couple, James & Linda Rowe.


Macondo (2010) 11 Fatalities

  • 2 Engineers (Mud)

Are we (as Engineers & Consultants) therefore guilty of making facilities safe for but not necessarily with the people we aim to protect ?


Do we too easily talk the talk without walking the walk ?


How often do we put our money where our mouth is or practice what we preach ?


Here's the simple test I threw out to the body of the kirk...

  1. How many of you have your own overalls & helmet ?

  2. How many of you have dirty overalls & induction stickers on your grubby headgear ?

It may not be scientific but it should make you think who are the ultimate stakeholders - it's those who's life is at stake!




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