Maybe You Didn’t Hear Me

July 13, 2007
Why do engineers and their companies tolerate safety standards that aren’t enforced until after accidents occur, and why do they accept safety device certifications that only cover compliance in lab-based settings?
Something’s still bugging me about process safety. It could be that nobody’s called or emailed to complait about the shoddy job I did on the May 2007 cover story, “Uncertain Safety,” or even object to its conclusions. Not even a little hate mail. Not a peep. Man, people really don’t want to bring process safety into the light, or even mention it. But I think that’s only part of what’s annoying me.Engineers and other technical professionals usually are pretty obsessive about maintaining their applications, doing it safely, and justifiably have a healthy amount of professional pride. So, why do they and their companies tolerate standards that aren’t enforced until after accidents occur, or accept safety device certifi cations that only cover compliance in lab-based settings, or continue to allow unsafe companies to operate in their industry without loudly calling for them to be investigated and brought into compliance? As Humphrey Bogart says in The Maltese Falcon, “It’s bad for business when one of your own gets killed, bad all around, and you’ve got to do something about it.”

Sure, applications and safety solutions differ, but there are more than enough commonalities on which to build effective regulations, if only the political will existed to draft and enforce them. One veteran process safety expert, Bob Adamski, director of Invensys’ Premier Consulting Services, recently told me that the overall reaction to process safety in Europe is “How can we get it done?” However, the attitude is the U.S. is still “What can we get away with?”

If this is true, why is it so? If caution and care are suddenly lacking from a place or part of a profession where they usually have a strong presence, then something must be driving that absence. Active neglect takes effort, which means someone needs to be getting paid for it to happen and continue.

One of my favorite process engineers often reminds me that “Money doesn’t talk. It screams in your face,” which is an adaptation of Bob Dylan’s famous lyric, “Money doesn’t talk. It swears.” I prefer Cindy Lauper’s song title “Money Changes Everything,” More mainstream versions include the “we’re in business to make money” mantra, which usually is stated with a fi nality that seems to preclude further discussion, and so prevents its parrots from having to think more deeply about it. Economists defi ne money it as a tool for increasing “economic utility,” such as enabling folks with hot dogs to trade with those who have mustard, so they can all enjoy the benefi ts of both. Unfortunately, the concept of utility and its true implications are harder to understandthan simple greenbacks or Benjamins.

Over the years, the considerable benefi ts of oil and gas have been quicker transportation, heat, numerous synthetic products, and countless others. In fact, these apparent benefi ts for consumers and producers may be so profound and widespread that they usually overwhelm any questions or objections. But what are some of those hidden or unconsidered costs? It’s easy to see that oil and gas production often have had destabilizing and unexpectedly negative long-term on traditional and indigenous cultures worldwide in the Middle East, Africa, South America, and elsewhere. This is because oil historically tends to make a few leaders rich, brings few economic benefit to the lower classes and often pollutes local environments. Similarly, back here at home, the 31,000 kilocalorie per gallon energy punch that gasoline delivers via internal combustion also has had a subtly destabilizing effect on its users and consumers. Sure, it’s long fueled most of the industrialized world’s personal and commercial transportation. However, once-cheap oil and gas also have helped make most of its users lazy, entitled and perilously dependent on it.

It seems the lack of process safety is just one symptom of a much more serious and widespread illness. So, how can we bring producers and consumers back to a more healthy relationship with our fuel? A good fi rst step might be to decrease the pressure and heat in this economic vessel by voluntarily ramping down use of its contents. Once again, all we have to do is stop driving so much.
If the African-Americans and supporters, who organized and participated in the 1955-56 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., could walk and car pool for civil rights, why can’t we at least get out of our cars more often and take a few buses or trains for a cause that’s at least as important?

Oh yeah, another contract worker, Richard Liening, was killed at BP’s Texas City refi nery on June 5. Ho hum.

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control.