Don't compromise plant safey with high-priced mistakes

April 7, 2008
Paul Studebaker says plant safety is too important to leave to chance, and that you can enrich yourself by learning from others' mistakes.

Another politician resigns from office while his stoic spouse looks on. Somebody wants to start another war. The market crashes and leaves us in its dust. Sometimes I doubt we are capable of learning from our own mistakes, much less have any hope of leveraging the miserable experiences of others.

To quote Peter Principal formulator Laurence J. Peter, “There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.” There’s a lot of pain going around, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

The 15 people killed in the BP refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, didn’t have to die. The 440 people who work at the closing Union Tank Car facility in East Chicago, Ind., didn’t have to lose their jobs. Your plant doesn’t have to be less safe or have higher costs than any other facility in its industry.

Don’t believe me? Start with the newly released computer simulation video of what happened at the BP refinery (linked at You’ll be astounded at the series of errors that led to the disaster, not because they’re so egregious, but because they’re common as dirt. If you don’t recognize yourself, your coworkers or your management in at least one of them, drop me a line and I’ll nominate yours for Plant of the Year.

“You don’t have to contemplate the consequences of The Big One to appreciate the benefits of the safety-conscious plant,” said Norm Poynter, business consultant, Nexen, in his presentation, “Process Safety Management,” at the recent SAP-Centric EAM 2008 event in Austin, Texas. “The business case for PSM isn’t well illustrated by focusing on incidents,” he says. Consider the competitive advantages of process integrity, protected personnel, environmental and social responsibility, risk and liability mitigation and enhancing the value of your brand.

Even safe factories are being closed every day because greedy stakeholders join gluttonous consumers in a race to the bottom of the economic ladder, but those closed first are almost always underperformers. Enlightenment doesn’t come in time for a lot of them, but there’s no reason it couldn’t. At a recent Advanced Technology Services event, one plant manager nearly broke down and cried as he described how well his plant started performing once they learned they would be closed – if only they’d had the sense to do it before the handwriting hit the wall. If only he had led them.

Dozens of industrial maintenance and asset-management consulting, education, systems integration and services companies are out there helping industrial facilities increase production quantities and quality, as well as safety, while reducing costs. Many now have enough industry-specific experience to analyze your operations and tell you early on exactly how (and how much) you’ll save. But you shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t darken your door on their own – they’re very busy helping your competition. You’d best give them a call.

Then you’ll have to do something. You’ll have to change your culture – the way your people do things – and, above all, yourself. It’s not fun, said Mike Hays, team leader, Tyson Foods, in his presentation, “Correct Change Required,” at SAP-Centric EAM. People have to go through all the classic symptoms of denial, anger, pessimism and ultimately despair before they decide whether to stay and accept change or leave and take their chances somewhere else.

While you and yours are grieving the good old days, work might not go so well, or as Hays said, “Every transition will affect business performance in some way.” Professional change-management can more than pay for itself by helping you minimize that dip.

Abigail Van Buren once said, “If we could sell our experiences for what they cost us, we’d all be millionaires.” Imagine how rich you can be by learning from others’.

E-mail Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker at [email protected].

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