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Paying heed to weak signals pays off

Paying heed to weak signals pays off


What do you do if your engine warning light comes on when you are driving your car? Book your car in to the garage? Or ignore it completely?

The engine warning light in your car is designed to alert you to a problem that may be just around the corner, so you can take action, and avoid a potential breakdown or accident. What is the equivalent of an engine warning light on an oil and gas installation offshore? How do we know if a major accident is just around the corner?

We hear a lot about companies celebrating their personal safety record. ‘365 days without a Lost Time Incident (LTI)’, or ‘Project completed LTI free’. Such achievements should rightfully be celebrated, but they are about as useful an indicator of process safety performance as your car manufacturer’s factory floor LTI record is an indicator that your car is about to break down. The trouble is that these are personal safety metrics, not process safety.

Personal safety describes the higher frequency, but lower consequence events that are normally limited to harming individuals, such as falls from height or manual handling incidents.

Process safety is what we all do to prevent major accidents. These are the much lower frequency, but higher consequence events such as fires and explosions, dropped objects or ship collisions, which have the potential to result in the death or serious injury of multiple people and/or significantly damage the environment.

Here’s the rub though: the underlying causes of process safety incidents can be very difficult to spot beforehand. Nonetheless, investigations into process safety incidents have consistently flagged up noticeable warning signs that a problem was developing prior to the incident occurring. These are known as weak signals.

Operators with robust process safety management systems in place actively search for weak signals. These often include the number of small hydrocarbon leaks, the amount of critical maintenance backlog, or number of near-miss incidents. They must act upon weak signals in the same way that we should call a mechanic if an engine warning light comes on.

It could be argued that the industry’s engine light started flashing at least three years ago. That was when Director of the HSE’s Energy Division, Chris Flint, stated that the offshore industry was ‘perilously close to disaster.’ Arguably, the situation has not improved significantly.

But what weak signals do we have available to us as the wider industry? We know that the number of hydrocarbon releases that occur offshore in the UK have increased year-on-year since 2018.

Independent research has also revealed that over 60% of managers in the oil, gas, and renewables sectors outlined concerns in their organisation about the possibility of a major safety incident occurring over the next five years. Over two-thirds of that same group reported that safety investment or training within their company has been cancelled or delayed due to the pandemic.

And finally, the number of non-compliance issues found by the HSE during offshore inspections has doubled since 2014, with the issues most commonly identified relating to maintenance and operating procedures.

While there is no doubt that these statistics provide cause for concern, there are actually straightforward steps that the industry can take to reverse the trend. It’s incumbent on any organisation which operates with the risk of a major accident occurring to actively search for weak signals, and take appropriate action if any are found.

Typically, these are expressed as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and are reported on a process safety dashboard. This system provides ongoing assurance that risks are being monitored and controlled, which in turn improves reliability and avoids complacency.

Performance against KPIs should always be communicated to the entire workforce to provide reassurance that management prioritise process safety, and that progress is continuously being made.

Maintaining vigilance of this system, actively taking steps to address weak signals, and an ongoing open dialogue with team members – this is how we, as an industry, prevent that warning light turning into something with far greater consequences.

Salus Technical offers three complementary services: online software packages including Bowtie Master, which allows customers to visualise their risks and communicate them with their team; process safety engineering support, and a range of tailored and on-demand training courses. For more information visit:

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Published: 16-12-2021

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