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I recently delivered a training course in SE Asia, and met a young environmental engineer. She told me about her water treatment system that discharged cleaned water to the environment. It soon became clear that one instrument was paramount to her having a good day or her having a bad day – it was the instrument that measured contaminant concentration in ppm (and for confidentiality, I am not going to identify the contaminant).

As the course progressed, it became clear (to me) that she trusted the system that was in place, but the system might not have been thoroughly challenged.

<let me say that differently>

From my understanding of how the system worked, it was not important to clean the water to “x” ppm, but to make sure the instrument did not read above “x” ppm of contaminant.

She looked at me with a very confused look. I then told her my “war stories” <aside, it is the obligation of the training provider to provide pertinent “war stories” to show the relevance of the learnings>.

I was once working in a riverside oil refinery as a consultant. The plant cleaned its water to x ppm of oil and grease before discharging the water into the adjacent river. It was just at dawn, and the light was such that you could see a sheen on the water. I reported this to my host. She did not go look at the sheen, but instead went to the control room to look at the oil-in-water analyser reading (which was under the discharge limit). She then went to the instrument and looked at the local reading (which was also under the discharge limit). She then told me that all was OK, and there was no issue.

When I asked again about the sheen, she re-iterated that they were required to discharge water of a certain cleanliness, which they were doing. The implication was that the sheen was irrelevant.

Back to my training, and the delegate had a concerned look on her face.

I then continued the war story. After leaving the refinery, I told a good friend (an excellent instrumentation engineer), and she said that she once worked in a facility where the water discharge pipe was not full, and the sample system was measuring the vapour space. When they figured this out, they put an upside down “U” on the pipe outlet, which flooded the pipe, and ensured the analyser measured liquid. The contaminant reading went WAY up when they did this.

Back to my training, and the delegate said her company routinely calibrated the instrument.

I then told her that an instrument will only measure the data delivered to it. Calibration checks the ability of the instrument to measure the data delivered to it, but if the incorrect data is delivered, the instrument is “wrong”. I then used a simple example of a pressure gauge. If the inlet valve to the pressure gauge is closed, the pressure gauge will continue to measure pressure, but the wrong pressure.

To finish my analogy, I used the story of a professional Australian Rules (AFL) football player from the 1990s that had chronic fatigue syndrome. He took steroids as part of his treatment for chronic fatigue, even though steroids were banned as a performance enhancing drug by the league. We know he took them because he confessed to taking them. But his chronic fatigue was severe enough that he consumed all of the steroids, and he never returned a positive drug test. He was not banned. Moral … taking steroids is not against the rules, but returning a positive drug sample is. Moral applied to her situation … you can discharge above the environmental limits, but your instrument must say you did not.

Finally, I suggested to her that she needed to have confidence in the entire system, not just the instrument.

And based on the look on her face, she did not. We finished the discussion on how she could get confidence in her system.

And … I think I did my job of delivering training, because I provided insight to help her do her job better – which is the ultimate purpose of training.

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This month I am going to be a little controversial. I will definitely be more opinionated then normal.

In February, 2015, there was an outbreak of Hepatitis A in Australia. It was traced to some contaminated frozen fruit. The frozen fruit was processed offshore.

It appeared the contamination was caused by procedural errors in washing and handling the frozen berries.

I discussed this with a friend that works at another university It got both of us thinking … are procedures a good safeguard? Now I know that there are specialists that can give an excellent answer to this, but because I am a simple person, I am looking for a simple answer. And I developed some opinions (both of us developed similar opinions, but I will stick with my opinion). I think it is almost a given that a human will make a mistake. That means a procedure will not be followed – unless additional safeguards are put into place.

It also got us thinking … a corporate board can blame a low-level worker if not following a procedure causes an incident. After all, the board can say that “safeguards were in place”.

Combining the two issues, we came to the conclusion that a strong safety culture would understand these issues. A strong safety culture would recognise that procedures need to be reinforced, either by checking, strong training, or other support. A procedure is based on compliance, but a strong safety culture understands the need to EXCEED compliance.

Yes EXCEED compliance. I would love to find a board member that says “We will not compromise on safety”. My follow-up question would be … “Would you compromise on extra safety?” In my opinion (I am using that statement a lot in this brief), a company that complies is doing the minimum to meet the requirements of the law. And not a thing more. No, they will not compromise on safety, because if they do, they will break the law.

<aside … the board member would not compromise on extra safety for his/herself, but possibly would compromise on extra safety for the public. Consider a car. A car that “complies” does with safety requirements does not have ABS, electronic steering control, reversing cameras, air bags, etc etc etc. I expect the board member would buy a car that has all of these safety features, but might not use the same logic for protecting the public or the environment>

In my opinion (again) organisations with a strong safety culture see the need to stay ahead of the safety curve, and exceed compliance.

Now … after coming to this conclusion (the talk) we both felt we had to “walk the walk” – if for no other reason than to set a good example for the students.

While we work on different campuses for different universities, our work brings us into contact with many students … who are naturally transient and temporary. And … are still learning how to think. For things like using a chemistry lab, they receive training, but … as students … it is probably reasonable to assume that procedures will not be followed 100% of the time.

We both made an informal agreement that … whenever we saw a safety violation that involved a procedure not being followed, we would report the incident not as:

“a procedure was not followed. Therefore the person is at fault.”

but instead, as

“the system accepted a procedure as a safety barrier, and it failed because the procedure was not followed. Therefore the system is at fault.”

This simple action will hopefully result in people looking at safety in a different way. And by looking at safety differently, some improvement may happen.

While my friend has no success stories to tell, I have a couple of small ones. I have been very diligent in working with the students monitoring trip hazards. They seem to find ways to leave laptop cables in very bad locations. When this happens, I tell them:

“What are the 6 ways to prevent a hazard?”

“First is elimination. Can we eliminate this hazard?” Once we did, because the laptop did not need to be charged. Other times it could not.

“Second is substitution. Can we get power from a different source?” So far the answer has always been no.

“Third is isolation. Can we isolate the trip hazard?” So far, the answer has always been YES! So I have been pleased to see that my attempt to walk the walk is having some impact.

I think this method is better than simple nagging, and definitely better than ignoring the issue. So, while I have made an effort to lift my game in being safe, and in encouraging others to improve or change the way people think about safety, it is nice to see some successful baby steps.

More to come.

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This is a key aspect of delivering training – be it academic or industrial. As a person that tries to deliver knowledge, it is important to know what they do not know (and hopefully I and help fill the shortfall).

I recently had an opportunity to deliver a pilot training course (topic irrelevant) but one of the key learnings was … young engineering students entering the workforce do not understand confined spaces.

Is this reasonable?

Looking back at myself, I did not understand “confined spaces” when I entered the workforce, but that was over 30 years ago. I learned it on the job, and since most of our equipment was small (hand holes but not man-ways) it was not that relevant for us. When I started working with storage tanks, then it became very (VERY) relevant.

In speaking with some colleagues, I concluded I was “normal” for my generation (and I would consider my generation … Baby Boomer).

In speaking with colleagues that I would consider Gen-X’ers, they did not learn about confined spaces until they entered the workforce, and they learned about it on the job.

And in speaking with colleagues that I would consider Gen-Y’ers, they also did not learn about confined spaces until they entered the workforce, and they learned about it on the job.

Finally, in speaking with recent graduates, they also did not learn about confined spaces until they received site specific on-the-job training.

So, I concluded this was “normal” for the current students entering the workforce to not understand confined spaces.

Should it be normal? The academic curricula is full, so to make room for confined space, something probably has to be removed. But what?

I am not in a position to alter the current academic curricula – the current curricula is accredited, and to change it requires time and implementation of a former process.

There is always a need for industry and academia to work together. This helps ensure academia provides the education that is pertinent to the needs of industry.

There are several ways industry and academia can work together for mutual benefit. These include:

  • Guest lectures
  • Plant tours
  • Providing learning material (such as drawings or samples of “things”)
  • Local case studies

And I am sure there are others. If you have any ideas of how industry and academia can do a better job of working together, we would love to hear them.

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Last month I told you about the problems I had because the beautiful people interviewing for Qatar Airways were distracting my training.

What I did not tell you last month was … the venue had a safety hazard.

The hazard was temporary, and easily fixed, but that does not change the fact that it existed.

One of my jobs as a training facilitator is to take charge of the class and deliver it to safety in the event of an incident. In about 180 training courses, I have had to evacuate twice. Of the two, one was a planned drill announced in advance, and the other was a caused by a faulty sensor.

I have a PowerPoint slide that is part of my intro – it prompts me on all “general housekeeping items” such as where are the washrooms, where we have break, have me check for any special diet issues, and … show them the fire exits. I prefer to show instead of tell.

And this leads me to my temporary safety issue – one of the fire exits was blocked. It was blocked by furniture, so it was temporary, but it was still blocked. I made the discovery while the venue was empty (when I was setting up).

I do not feel it worthwhile to tell the name of the venue, but I did demand a meeting with the venue manager. The manager was very apologetic, but I was disappointed in the lack of surprise that the incident had occurred.

The one time we had to evacuate in an unplanned manner … the venue had advised me (when I was checking before the session started) that a member of staff would escort us out. After waiting about 1 minute after the alarm activated, and no member of staff in sight, I decided to evacuate the group myself. We evacuated without incident, and later I approached the manager about the “incident”. It turns out this was not known to the manager, and I was advised their policies would be reviewed and updated (I did not hear about any updates, nor did I feel I should follow up with the venue).

If you look, it is amazing what unsafe “things” you can find that others have overlooked. Some of the ones from my personal life outside of my work:

  • Telling an airline their pre-take-off safety briefing video was a hazard. The issue … the person in the video reached up to get a life vest (when the life vest was stored under my seat)
  • Asking an airline for a seat belt extension (I am a fat guy) and finding it did not fit into the buckle. There was another on-board – the flight attendant told me someone had grabbed the wrong bag
  • Turning down a ride in a taxi, because the driver was willing to transport our large group, when the number of people in the taxi would exceed the number of seat belts in the taxi
  • Statues with sharp edges in the median strip of the main street of my local shopping centre.
  • And when I was in university, I was in my mathematics class, when I looked out the window out of boredom and saw part of this happen

The taxi was not reported, and I did not need to report the plane crash, but I did report the other three. The median strip statues have been removed (others also complained about the same issue). I do not know the result of the first two.

Clearly, safety does not end at work, and it can manifest itself in many places, in many forms. It is just a matter of thinking about what you see, and then responding appropriately.

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When I talk with people about process safety, one of my favourite examples is here ( The very idea of a Mr PotatoHead hot air balloon coming down inside a factory is just … well … it is just silly enough to be ridiculous, but ridiculous enough to be credible.

The article shows how the factory was well prepared for process safety incidents, and was able to manage the situation without incident. Which is … I guess … a form of contingency planning.

I was reminded of this Mr PotatoHead story when I needed contingency plans for my training. I was delivering a training course in Abu Dhabi. And … in the room across from us was … a virtual army of beautiful people (both young men and young women). It turns out Qatar Airways was interviewing for flight attendants in the next room. Well, let’s just say that all eyes were NOT on my PowerPoint slides.

It did not matter what I tried, the class was focussed on the beautiful people interviewing with Qatar Airways.

I tried some good war stories – the class was focussed on the beautiful people interviewing with Qatar Airways.

I tried humorous videos – the class was focussed on the beautiful people interviewing with Qatar Airways.

I reminded them of the exam at the end of the course, which they would need to pass to get their certificates – the class was focussed on the beautiful people interviewing with Qatar Airways.

Finally, I found a method that worked. I pretended to be sick to my stomach and took a quick break (turned out to be about 7 minutes). On the way out I told them to take the time and go talk with the beautiful people interviewing with Qatar Airways. That seemed to work.

So how are the article and the hot air balloons related to my experience with the beautiful people interviewing with Qatar Airways? I have had various issues with training delivery that I have had to overcome – both from a pre-planned and an on-the-spot perspective, but in both cases, there were primary objectives that provided guiding philosophies for every decision.

For the factory, (while I am not 100% certain) I expect some of those philosophies were:

  • Protect as many as possible, while endangering as few as possible
  • Minimise problems – this may mean keeping operations running, as a running plant is a familiar plant
  • Empower key people to make decisions, and trust them
  • Trust your training

For me, some of the philosophies were:

  • Provide the opportunity to learn, but do not force learning
  • Be ready to adapt to your audience at a moments notice
  • Read the audience – when they do not want to learn for whatever reason (usually fatigue), find productive alternatives

While good planning does not cover every contingency, good planning (and practicing the good planning) gives the response team experience and confidence, and therefore the ability to deal with almost any situation, including having to deal with the beautiful people interviewing with Qatar Airways.

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With the slowing of the economy, I am finding myself with a little free time. One way I fill it is by looking at technical discussion boards and (occasionally) participating.

One caught my eye recently. A person was having problems with pump cavitation, and using an online discussion board was asking for solutions. It should be noted that the person was in operations, and when in operations, the ability to fix cavitation is quite limited (as opposed to design).

The person said all the “correct” things (NPSH calculation, HYSYS simulation, etc), and the discussion took off. And I found this amusing, because …

They were only talking about one way to cavitate a pump.

Are there more than one way to cavitate a pump? Well, actually there are three ways to cavitate a pump. Technically, I learned about all of them in my university days, but I doubt I understood them from a classroom perspective.

And over the years, I have developed what I think is a bulletproof definition of cavitation – it took me over 25 years to fully get my mind around it.

My definition … Cavitation is a two-step process. Step 1 is the introduction of or creation of bubbles. Step 2 is the iso-thermal (non-iso-baric) condensation / collapse of the bubbles.

The first way I learned from working in the oil and gas industry. It is the classical if NPSHA is less than NPSHR then the pump will cavitate. The basis is that the liquid is relatively close to the boiling point, and there are enough hydraulic changes in the liquid that it boils isothermally (by changes in pressure). This is the basis for the CREATION of the bubbles. This is the method of cavitation that can be managed by calculation, and the one most engineers understand (because it has an equation). Unfortunately, this also seems to be the ONLY source of cavitation that most people consider. (ASIDE: with very few exceptions, I think this is essentially the only way to cavitate valves, flow meters, and fittings).

The second way to cavitate a pump is a method I learned from working in the mining industry. Many pumps have the liquid BELOW the pump, and the act of lifting the liquid created a vacuum inside the pump. Since many mining fluids are water or water-based, the pumps use packing instead of mechanical seals. Naturally, the packing will leak a little, but the vacuum would allow air (and air bubbles) to enter – on the inlet side of the pump impeller. This is one basis for INTRODUCTION of bubbles. While I think it is possible to use calculations to estimate cavitation tendencies, it is not a nice calculation (like the NPSHA is less than NPSHR equation).

The third way to cavitate a pump is a method I learned while commissioning a new pumping system. We discovered that when our tank reached a certain level (above the pump LSLL, and WELL above the calculated minimum level for NPSHA cavitation) our pump started cavitating. And it was flowrate sensitive. Because it was an atmospheric tank, we were able to open a hatch and watch what was happening … at a certain level a vortex was forming on the liquid outlet. This allowed gas (not bubbles, but actual gas) to enter the pump. Some was condensed as the pressure rose across the pump, thus the cavitation. Again, this is cavitation caused by the INTRODUCTION of bubbles, but the bubbles are from the process. Again, this is difficult to predict by calculation.

So three ways to cavitate a pump, but because we can only perform a calculation on one, that is the one we tend to focus on.

The discussion board? I made a comment. After my comment, the discussion drifted back to the NPSHA/NPSHR calculation. <shrugs>

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I recently received a bill for annual membership in a professional association. I am a member of four, and looking at the bill, I had to wonder … was I really getting value for money?

In my previous life as an employee of a large company, my employer paid these fees, and I took them for granted. But now that we are a small organisation, and with the economy changing, I have to question their value.

What do they provide:

  • Access to a network. Well, I can access many of the same people at industry events, which are often free or extremely low cost. So that does not sound like good value for money.
  • I can access technical papers at a discount. Depending on how often I access the professional associations’ library, this can justify annual fees.
  • I get a monthly magazine. … … …
  • I get access to webinars at a discount. Again, depending on how often I attend, this can justify the annual fees.
  • And then my list becomes trivial from a financial perspective.

So the value of the membership is going to depend upon how often the membership is used. Which is somewhat reasonable.

But it did cause me to the question … what can a professional association do for me? And I have one answer … in my position as a person that delivers technical training, they can help me deliver training to the members. The association can market my courses, collect the attendance fees, and pay me a wage, and it is win-win. If the attendees like the course, it is win-win-win.

So how am I doing at making this happen:

Professional Association 1. After 3 years of contacts, numerous emails, phone calls, finding the person I need to talk to because the previous person quit, etc., we finally had success. This membership is one I will definitely keep because it has truly become mutually beneficial.

Professional Association 2. After 2 years of contacts, numerous emails, internet questionnaires, marketing webinar recordings, etc., we got to the final point and … we could not agree on the marketing – they basically wanted me to surrender my intellectual property to them. I now must question my membership in this organisation – it appears to be very one-way (and not one-way in my favour)

Professional Association 3. This association is more closely related to an industry sector than a profession. While it is a purely one-way relationship, there seems to be enough information and opportunities to justify continuing with the one-way relationship.

Professional Association 4. This one is required by law for me to work in one state. With the exception that I can comply with the law and issue an invoice, it is otherwise useless to me. While there may be merit in it, I am sure it is nothing more than a source of revenue for the state government (translation … it is a tax)

The bill I mentioned previously? I decided to pay it. Maybe this is the year I can get more value from my memberships.

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If one does indeed “learn from our mistakes” then we recently have learned something. I would like to share it with you.

Many of you are familiar with the concept of “management of change”, possibly from the US legal system for process safety. I have recently learned that it is extremely hard to manage change. I have a new found respect for organisations that are successful in managing change.

For my watershed moment, the change came from our website. A bit of background:

  • We are a small business. If we cannot do it ourselves, we outsource, and creating a website was something we outsourced.
  • We outsourced to a new start-up. At the time, we were also a start-up. Well, that start-up failed. We cannot locate any key point of contact from the start-up with reasonable searches (granted, we did not hire a private investigator, but ….)
  • Changes in other software (computer operating systems, upgrades to web browsers, etc) meant our website was becoming obsolete and clunky, and some features did not work.
  • One “feature” that stopped working was an editing function. This meant we could not update portions of our website.
  • We discovered this “new feature” while trying to update a page. The result was lost information (the back-up was with the now failed start-up, so no back-up was available)

It was clear we needed a change. Or changes. Some of the changes we needed were:

  • New website
  • New website architecture / structure / software
  • (possibly) New website designer

We prepared a project document describing what we wanted, we prepared a budget, and we went to the market. And we found what many companies find – the budget was not adequate for what was desired. We decided to not increase our budget – instead deciding to expand our search of the market and found … a start-up that could do it within our budget. Yes the alarm bells were ringing but we did not hear them.

And then the schedule blew out. Not massively, but (as with most things) in small but numerous increments. Each time the schedule blew out, we decided to continue, because progress was being made, just not as fast as we would have liked.

Finally (FINALLY) we have a new website. Using WordPress (which we can edit ourselves, so one ongoing problem has been eliminated).

Based on the pain of managing a rather small issue like changing / upgrading a website, I can empathise with organisations that are trying to cause cultural change in process safety, and trying to honestly recognise what is a change that needs to be addressed. Based on our experience, it is easier said than done. Respect for the organisations that have found success.

One final thing – we have learned from our mistakes. When we expanded our search of the market, we did not increase the human resource requirements for project management. We did not make the connection of the need for more project management to manage supplier uncertainty. We did not properly vet the project management skills of the selected supplier – we only vetted the technical skills of the selected supplier.

We are happy with the end product, and we would have been happier taking a different path to get there. And we accept we are responsible for the selection of the path.

We hope you like our new website.

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We hope the coming year is profitable and rewarding for you.

This is the story of my last flight of 2012. It shows how one airline (who shall remain nameless) managed to turn a small, manageable problem into a very large problem. Small problems cost a little bit of money to solve, big problems cost a lot of money to solve.

My last assignment in 2012 was in Ankara, Turkey. I had to fly from Ankara the afternoon of the 21st of December to Istanbul, and then connect to a on another airline to Dubai. I had a long layover in Dubai (key information) before getting my final flight from Dubai to Melbourne. My ground time in Istanbul was short (2 hours) but it was manageable. I found Istanbul Airport to be easy to get around, and felt confident it would not be an issue.

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