What do process safety and the March for Science have in common?

'There are similar forces at work against those pushing for process safety and those marching in support of science. The real power of ignorance, inertia, entropy and short-sighted, unsafe production quotas is that they don't have to do anything to accomplish their destructive goals,' says Jim Montague.

By Jim Montague

In an epic bout of spreading myself too thin, I took a long drive around the U.S. a couple of weeks ago at the same time I was trying to finish this month's cover article on process safety. My primary destinations were the first March for Science on April 22 in Washington, D.C., and the Measurement, Control & Automation Association Industry Forum on April 23-25 in Atlanta. Both events were very invigorating.

Quite apart from the march's appeals to reason and calls to preserve funding for critical scientific research and services, I was just happy to see so many scientists, engineers, doctors, teachers and other technical professionals finally speaking out—and talking to each other. About time and way overdue! These folks are usually doing so much essential, supportive and often lifesaving work that they don't have time to do all the unnecessary calling of attention to themselves that characterizes other, more visible, professions.

Yes, process control engineers aren't the only introverted technical experts out there, and it was excellent to see increasing numbers of them becoming more aware of each other. Why is this so great? Because it means more smart people are likely to be drawn out of their traditional professional spheres and mental shells in the future, and form connections they never had before.

Hopefully, they'll also be encouraged to participate more in improving their larger organizations and communities, which often have been managed and governed by a high ratio of idiots for far too long. From a purely selfish perspective, I find that I get much more useful quotes from logical, well-informed and conscientious sources.

At the same time, maybe because the process safety story was preying on my mind, I began to see some parallels between the science marchers and those longtime safety advocates who have pushed for adoption of reasonable safety practices and adherence to IEC 61511 for many years—only to see many owner/operator companies continue to blow up their employees without penalty, and destroy huge assets and long-term value in pursuit of short-sighted production goals. At last count, the $500,000-$700,000 it would have cost for automatic shutdown controls on the blowout preventer beneath the Deepwater Horizon platform was still a lot less than the $160-180 billion price tag for killing 11 men and fouling much of the Gulf of Mexico.

As for the marchers, many wonder why they have to even mention that it's crucial to support and fund medical research and its cures, environmental regulations and other science-based services, which have been threatened recently by the Trump Administration with devastating funding cuts and hiring freezes. Hey, doesn't this illogic sound just like the bass-ackward cost-benefit analysis that BP didn't do in the gulf?

Fact is, there are similar forces at work against those pushing for process safety and those marching in support of science. I may have mentioned this before, but the real power of ignorance, inertia, entropy and short-sighted, corner-cutting, unsafe production quotas is that they don't have to do anything to accomplish their destructive goals. A nifty trick, and so much easier than taking necessary action.     

So what's the cure? Same as it's always been. Getting up and off our collective rear ends, and making those actions happen. Some marchers may ask why they have to march. Some process safety supporters may question why they have push for safety to come before productivity. If you have to ask, then you already have your answer. I can almost hear the screams of "I don't wanna!" and "You can't make me!" Music to my ears, like an old car engine starting up. 

As with so many other difficult but worthwhile tasks, just keep slowly chipping away, like an ice shelf about to fall off of Greenland or Antarctica. And take it one step at a time. I once did a story on the Norge ski jumping club in Fox River Grove, Ill., where I learned that no one goes off the big jump at first. Everyone starts on the tiny, unheralded and progressively larger hills off to the side.