Dinner with Duncan Schleiss and Dave Dietz from Emerson…when I used to live in Austin, and that was only about 12 years ago, dining out was a matter of which fairly bad restaurant do you want to eat at today. There was one, count ’em, one Japanese restaurant in Austin. Now there are as many multiethnic choices as New York or San Francisco, or Seattle. And some of them are great. We ate at Sushi Sake in the Arboretum area…not a bad sushi restaurant, not bad at all.
Much of the conversation was about the fact that the process industries are risk averse, and so adoption of new technologies takes about n times longer than you think it should… And well that should be. If you’re running a service business, or even a distribution business, the likelihood that something you do every day will wind up suddenly killing people, possibly including you, is small. But in the process industries, especially the chemical and refining verticals, it is absolutely the case.
As many of are doing, we talked about the BP Texas City incident from last year. This is really important. I noted what Steve Apple of TiPS had said earlier about it. “I’m really getting tired,” Apple said, “of everybody dragging out the Texas City case and using it to scare people into putting in safety systems.”
Duncan agreed, although he noted that Texas City did not have a safety system. I pointed out that the safety system Emerson is now installing, after the fact, probably would not, of itself, have ended the incident safely.
The incident was really a lot more scarey than people realize. In fact, as Duncan pointed out to me quite correctly, the operators did nothing unusual that they hadn’t done numerous times before– without incident.
Texas City, and some other incidents in the past few years, don’t point to bad operator training, or bad operator decisions, or lack of safety systems. They point to systemic failures. Systemic failures are terrifying, because they start with the basic design of the hardware and software, with the basic design of the process– and no matter what you graft onto them, no matter how hard the operators try, the slippery slope is well greased, and the incidents will happen. In the case of Texas City, the operators were well aware that the choice points that the Chemical Board’s utterly frightening video have documented WERE choice points, and they chose the wrong thing every time.
If that doesn’t scare you to death, I am not sure what will.