“Safety in Design” is a research project within the public safety program of the Energy Pipelines Cooperative Research Centre. The focus is on public safety and the research involved interviews with a few dozen engineers from the design teams in both consulting firms and operating companies. The first report has been released and is recommended reading for engineers and managers involved in both design and project management of pipelines and facilities.
There is too much interesting material in the report for me to attempt to summarise it here. Topics of discussion include:
- Public safety and pipeline integrity
- Seeing the potential for disastrous failure
- Relationships within the project (engineering versus project management)
- Organisational priorities and responsibility for safety
- Role of the safety department
- Design by specialist consultants or in-house teams in operating companies
- Role of standards
- Compliance as a motivator for consideration of safety
From all of that I’ll choose just a few themes to mention …
Among pipeline design engineers “safety” is widely but not universally recognised as including prevention of catastrophic failures as well as the more well-known topics of OHS or personnel safety. Given my own background and biases I was a little surprised that there are any engineers in the industry (with the possible exception of recent graduates) who do not fully grasp that prevention of catastrophic failure is the critical issue.
There is a hierarchy of safety attitudes that I could perhaps describe as Compliance -> Quality -> Integrity -> Inherent Safety. At the most basic level, people will achieve compliance with the mandatory minimum requirements of standards. But blind compliance won’t necessarily lead to optimum safety. Similarly for the intermediate levels focussing on quality and then integrity. If this is a bit cryptic it is because space doesn’t permit full illustration – read the report. Suffice to say that as engineers gain experience and confidence they tend to progress up this hierarchy in their attitude to safe designs.
Finally, anyone who has worked on an engineering project will be familiar with the tension between project management and engineering. It is inevitable and not unhealthy. However it can become unhealthy when project management demands relating to cost and/or schedule override important engineering considerations. There is nothing new or earth shattering in this, but it was interesting to see the extent to which this theme recurred repeatedly throughout the research interviews.
The report suggests some issues for organisations to consider when thinking about their design activities:
- How does project documentation refer to public safety, if at all?
- What project activities keep the reality of possible safety outcomes visible to the team? Are they effective?
- How often does the team explicitly talk about the state of the balance between safety and cost/schedule?
- Who has power of veto at project gates? When was the last time it was used to real effect on a safety issue?
- How often does the design team talk to end users about safety issues?
- How is good professional judgement from discipline engineers fostered? How do managers demonstrate trust?
- Does the organization have systems in place to ensure compliance can be demonstrated as part of the design process? Does the organization allow time to ensure that compliance can be demonstrated?
- Do design engineers have a clear understanding of their legal obligations?
There is a whole lot more in the report than I have touched on here. I recommend it.
Thanks to Dr Jan Hayes of ANU for this important work, and thanks also to the companies and individuals who participated in the interviews. The report is available from the Energy Pipelines CRC to members of the APIA Research and Standards Committee. At this stage it is not available to non-members.