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Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads in Them
In a recent post to do with OSHA’s Process Safety Stakeholder meeting I suggested that a key takeaway was ‘Lack of Imagination’. OSHA’s proposed changes are basically tuning their existing system — yet the world has changed radically in many ways since the standard was published thirty years ago.
Last week, in my notes to do with the recent Hazards32 conference, I used the same phrase. Speakers at the meeting — including the plenary speaker Dame Hudith Hackitt — talked about how process safety in its present form it mature and seems to be relatively unchanging at a time when the process industries are in the throes of a transition to renewable energy.
Such remarks reinforced the idea that process safety professionals need to be imaginative. This should not be such a formidable challenge — after all, the idea of “thinking the unthinkable” is a core feature of process safety because major accidents occur only rarely. For example, a Process Hazards Analysis (PHA) is all about addressing potential incidents that have a very low likelihood of actually taking place. A PHA is an exercise in imagination.
My own comments on OSHA’s revised standard were to do with climate change. Climate change is a hazard that has potentially very serious consequences, and that has a high likelihood of impacting all of society in the coming years. Whether my comments are imaginative or not is for others to decide. But they are an example of “thinking the unthinkable’.
Which brings us to Marianne Moore, and her well known poem entitled simply, ‘Poetry’ that contains the following line,
Imaginary gardens with real toads in them
A successful poem, according to Moore, has to contain a mix of reality and imagination. The world it describes is often imaginary, but the events that occur within that world are all too real. Now, no one ever accused OSHA — or any other government agency, for that matter — of being poetic. But the idea of mixing imagination with facts on the ground makes sense, even in the bureaucratic world of government regulations.
Those who are charged with developing potential process safety scenarios need to visualize “imaginary gardens” — events and circumstances that have never existed, and that likely never will exist. However, the imaginary gardens are not fictional — they are plausible. Inside each imaginary garden exists one or more “real toads”.
Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford, expressed the same way of thinking when he famously said,
. . . there are known knowns; . . . We also know there are known unknowns; . . . But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.
Process safety is not mostly to do with the “known knowns”. Hazards that have already been identified have probably already been evaluated and addressed. Instead, process safety is mostly about “known unknowns”. We know, for example, that a storage tank may overflow or that a reactor temperature may rapidly increase. But we do not know the all the causes of such events. Nor do we know what the full range of consequences may be.
By their very nature it is impossible to describe the “unknown unknowns”. Cataclysmic events such as major wars belong in this category.
In his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Nassim Nicolas Taleb describes a ‘Black Swan’ as being an unpredictable event that has severe consequences. Black Swan events possess three key features:
They are a surprise and were not forecast by the risk models in use;
They have a major impact; and
After their occurrence, those involved rationalize what happened.
In other words, a Black Swan is an example of Rumsfeld’s “Unknown Unknown”.
Process Safety and Imagination
Process safety management is a mature discipline. However, the safety and overall operation of process facilities is likely to be affected by new and difficult-to-understand factors such as resource depletion, biosphere reduction and climate change. In order to understand how to manage these challenges imagination is called for.
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