Operational and general safety – a gulf between the two

The Samarco mine tailings dam failure draws my attention to the gulf that I have seen existing between general safety practices in a company and operational safety practices.

General safety, as practised by occupational safety and health practitioners, is typically based on the principles expounded in Chapters 1 and 2 and subject to the (often undue, in my opinion) influence of senior managers who believe they need to provide leadership in this field.

If I want an opinion on operational safety in an airline, or in a mine or a power station I do not first think of speaking to the general safety practitioners.  The reason is:

  1. that they are not normally pilots, engineers or scientists well qualified to understand the matter and

  2. their mental models are not normally of much relevance to the specific nature of operational risk.

Not surprisingly, in one major airline of which I am aware, operational personnel refused to be told what to do and how to do it by the general safety practitioners of the airline when there was a move to bring ‘safety’ (general and operational) under one banner.  I have seen the same, but normally not explicitly stated, division of tasks in power stations and mines.

I am aware also in another major airline (now defunct) of well-intentioned, but not carefully considered, efforts to apply general safety ideas to flying practices.  The result, according to my pilot informant, was ridiculous and dangerous.

The problem that I see with this state of affairs is that those responsible for operational safety seldom have a good model of ‘safety’ concepts on which to base their efforts.  The common concepts and methods of the generalist safety practitioner are an uneasy fit with the requirements of operational safety.  There is no inherent reason why this should be so and the concepts described in this book are as capable of being applied in one area as the other.  However to be an effective operational safety adviser, you first need to really know about operations, or you need to be able to understand how to communicate with those who are.  If barriers exist to such communication, for example through lack of education in relevant subjects at a relevant level (in knowledge-based subject areas such as high pressure and temperature steam generation and use, for example) or lack of relevant experience in skill-based work (such as flying operations), the generalist safety adviser will not be effective.

I have long admired the requirement of the Government of Maharashtra, India, that to be a safety adviser in, for example the chemical industry, you need to have a degree in a relevant subject (obviously chemistry, engineering etc. in that industry) and at least ten years’ experience in that industry.

One can compare that with the general absence of meaningful requirements in a country such as Australia.  Pretty much anyone can hang up a shingle and call themselves a safety consultant.  Efforts to standardise the education of generalist safety practitioners (eg. through the OHS Body of Knowledge) miss the point as well as risking fossilising educational content.

What would be a positive step forward would be to see Maharashtra-like requirements more wide-spread.  Perhaps then industry-based professions such as engineers and scientists would step forward and become involved in the development of safety concepts and practices and their promotion through professional-level post graduate qualifications.  At present, these professions rightly see OHS people as sub-professional and sub-trade level practitioners, unable to contribute to the serious management of operational risk.

In my experience also there is an uneasy rubbing of shoulders with corporate risk managers, who themselves often practice with little skill or knowledge-base of any significance.

These problems needs to be addressed if we as an industrial culture are to better manage our serious risks and see less of the Gulf of New Mexico, Samarco, Tianjin, just to name a recent few.

As an example, the picture below is of an aircraft cockpit in flight.  There are two errors the pilot has made, evidence of which is to be seen in this picture.  If you are not a pilot, how hard would it be to identify them and to understand their significance?


Leave a Comment