Safety Instrumented Systems

Old Habits Die Hard, Even for Automation Professionals

We Are Creatures of Habit, and We can't Get Beyond the Habits That Make Automation Accidents Happen

By Walt Boyes

In the first week of August, I moved to St. Louis, Mo., to be closer to my fiancé. Thanks to the miracles of modern telecommunications, I can easily continue to be editor in chief of this magazine and its website. But in order to make this move, I needed to get rid of most of my "stuff." Those of you who remember the late, lamented comedian George Carlin will assuredly remember his routine on "stuff."

Carlin said, "A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you're taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff." 

He went on, "That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff!"
Many trips to the charity donation center later, I have much less "stuff" than I did before, and it feels good. Some of that stuff was in boxes that were not opened even one time since we moved to Aurora, Ill., eight years ago. Clearly I didn't need that stuff. There was lots of stuff like that. I didn't get rid of it all, but it surely gave me a chance for reflection on what a creature of habit I am.

I was talking to Eddie Habibi, founder and CEO of PAS Inc. a few days ago, and he said that end-user customers keep telling him that they are looking for "state-of-the-art products that are at least ten years proven in use."  I suspect that is more about the end users' habits than the apparent contradiction.

We are all creatures of habit, in both our personal and professional lives. This is, of course, both good news and bad news. The good news is that we self-reinforce for things like being a good employee and a good person. The bad news is that unless we have a significant shake-up in our daily lives, we keep doing things the way we've always done them, regardless of whether that's the best thing to do or not.

As I've mentioned before, it seems to take a major shake-up to get companies and employees to change their behavior and their goals.  A major shake-up like an explosion or other accident might be enough to make a company and its employees make major changes in the way it handles workplace safety… or maybe not. Texas City clearly did not do enough to get BP out of its old habit of shoddy safety, so the Macondo Deepwater Horizon disaster happened.

And since then there have been many accidents in the process industries throughout the world. It is a sad thing, and a really nasty habit, to simply shrug and say, "Well, the process industries are dangerous. They don't call them boom factories for nothing, you know."

In early August, at the Holly-Frontier Tulsa East refinery, an explosion destroyed the hydrotreater unit. Holly-Frontier's Tulsa East refinery is an example (probably, because we don't know the cause yet) of what happens when you run a refinery at 125% of design capacity on a 24/7 basis until a failure occurs. A Wall Street Journal article on August 2 indicated that too many refineries are having incidents of "unplanned maintenance." We can all guess for ourselves what that actually means.

Most accidents in the process industries are attributable to poor maintenance practices, poor operations practice, operator error or a combination of the three. We will certainly find out if the Holly-Frontier accident is one that we can add to the long litany of accidents we don't seem to be able to get beyond.  We are creatures of habit, and we can't get beyond the habits that make these accidents not only possible, but probable—even certain. 

How long are we going to continue to kill our friends and co-workers? As long as it takes for us to give up our habits that lead to those accidents. We need to stop holding onto our stuff.