Process control for organisations

This post is contributed by Savitha Balu who is a PhD candidate within Research Program 4 of the Energy Pipelines CRC.  Her project is about the influence of safety specialists in organisations with the aim of finding the organisational models that most effectively promote technical integrity.    This article brings an engineering perspective to organisational factors  …

Research Program 4 is specifically examining the safety and security of the pipeline industry in terms of “human and organizational factors” – a field that seems to cover everything other than the physical and technical parameters or “facts” that we like to rely upon.  As an engineer now working in sociology, I thought it might be useful to share my vision of how this expansive approach could to be useful in the daily routine.

First of all, it must be understood that human and organizational factors neither supercede nor replace technical and physical factors.  They all co-exist and interact at several levels – be it obvious and simple or subtle and complex.  It is easy to dismiss the entire approach, being overwhelmed by the number of things that human and organizational factors encompass – how can anyone hope to understand and monitor how people interact, communicate, interpret procedures, follow rules, manage others?

It helps to remember that it would be just as overwhelming if we tried to monitor every physical parameter that affects a particular process.  A simple example is a storage tank – it is not common practice to continuously monitor inflow and outflow, calculating what the volume of the tank is or to continually record the temperature and pressure of the contents.  Instead it may be common practice to install a simple sight glass that is regularly checked or to determine under what conditions the storage tank needs attention and only monitor those (eg. low level, high level) and design for them as appropriate (eg. alarm and valve closure or overflow pipe to secondary containment).

Basically, we would design the process unit to be easily monitored by key parameters that provide a safe operating range, departure from which triggers an attention-seeking alarm or automatic control and containment.  The system would be designed, instrumentation installed and controls integrated by specialists as the field of process control is a sophisticated area in itself and the toolkit comprises everything from simple switches to custom-software for computer-controlled automated adjustment of process units.  So it is not expected that an operator become a process control specialist to run their plant.

I like to think that human and organisational factors should be treated in the same way.  That, for any given functional team within an organisation, key parameters can be developed for their safe operating range.  These parameters could be shift hours, reporting practices, maintenance turnaround, capital expenditure, audit reports – whatever is appropriate to the particular function.  The control mechanisms could be anything from a simple alert when a team member has accumulated too many working hours to a detailed procedure when audit recommendations haven’t been addressed within a specific timeframe – whatever is appropriate to the function.

It would not be expected that all aspects of sociological theories are fully understood in order to benefit from sociological insights.  Instead we would allow the specialists in human and organizational factors to help design systems of monitoring and control that are customized to particular operations.  The field hasn’t necessarily advanced that far yet as it is much harder to empirically demonstrate human and organizational parameters than it is to demonstrate technical and physical ones.  But there are certainly many many management mechanisms that have been implemented and are under scrutiny.  It would be a shame not to utilise this growing body of knowledge.

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