First, we should look at how each industry manages safety. The Petroleum Industry in Canada has long had a voluntary approach to safety management. Driven by industry organizations, Petroleum companies have implemented Safety Management Systems using a number of different models. Safety regulations across Canada are objective based. Petroleum Workers are taught to use a 'questioning attitude' and hone their critical-thinking skills to solve a problem. Many Petroleum companies adopt safety programs as incentives to reduce their worker compensation rates, but these are voluntary, and have varying degree of robustness across each province.
Alternatively, certificate holders in the Canadian Aviation industry are given significantly less autonomy in how safety priorities are managed. In particular, the Canadian Aviation Regulations specify the Safety Management System that must be implemented, and Transport Canada provides significant oversight and direction to aviation certificate holders. Employees in the aviation industry rely on checklists when performing tasks, and look to superiors for direction. Aviation workers have an understanding that every task or decision is critical – lives are at stake – resulting in quality assurance checks and detailed procedures for most tasks.
Now, I would like to first explore what the Aviation industry could gain from adopting some of the Petroleum industry’s safety management techniques. I believe that while the Aviation industry needs checklists and objective structure when it comes to safety, the importance of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills in an emergency situation should not be eschewed. There cannot be a bullet on a checklist to manage every incident, and there may be an incident where there is little guidance or even contradictory goals. In these scenarios, it is imperative that employees are comfortable using their own judgment and independent thought to make the best decision. You may think that this already happens, but look at it this way: there is little incentive for airline companies to provide training surrounding critical-thinking skills and emergency training that is over-and-above what is required by law. Doing so would impose additional costs on the companies and make them less competitive, especially since the benefits of that training are extremely difficult to measure in a monetary sense.
An example of where critical thinking should have been applied in addition to pre-determined safety checklists is when an audit found that the weight and balance had been miscalculated for several flights. Through a series of amendments to the form, combined with no training on these amendments, the crew neglected to account for the residual fuel on board. This all appeared to abide by the checklist, however a simple common sense check would have triggered an ‘Oh, wait’ moment, and perhaps forced the ground crew to ensure that the additional fuel wouldn’t put the plane over its limit.
Now, what Aviation safety practices do I think the Petroleum industry could benefit from? As you may have guessed, it is to incorporate more structure and the use of checklists and quality assurance checks. This would bolster current efforts and leave less subjectivity. In the case of an incident, it could be easier to pinpoint the root cause, and put less pressure on individual employees. Human errors account for a staggering number of Oil & Gas accidents, and I believe that the introduction of simple checklists for non-routine tasks especially could help reduce these numbers. An example of where a checklist or second quality assurance check could have prevented an incident is when a new operator forgot to open a hatch during bottom-loading a railcar. When the operator realized that the top hatch was still closed and loading had stopped, by opening the hatch while under pressure resulted in significant injury to the operator.
Using checklists for routine tasks has a serious downside – they become routine and often are filled out without thinking. Similar to hitting ‘I agree’ to the terms and conditions on an internet site, we stop reading the fine print. When faced with a problem, many Aviation companies add yet another checklist. This often results in workers filling them out without due consideration, or the checklists become cumbersome and in some instances wrong!
How do we prevent this? The Aviation industry uses a comprehensive quality assurance program to check records, observe workers, and have a culture of accountability. Having checklists for critical tasks, enforcing compliance to accurately complete them, and implementing a quality assurance review are concepts that the Petroleum industry could consider.
What do you think? Add your comments below.