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Not in My House

Posted on October 20th, 2017 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence

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The DuPont family brought gunpowder manufacturing to the United States in 1802. DuPont later became one of history’s most prolific chemical manufacturing companies.

Constructing the founder’s residence inside the factory ensured an appropriate level of process safety accountability. Any situation that could undermine the integrity of the process was immediately confronted. It was a simple and decisive formula for success.

As the company started to grow, policies designed to preserve the integrity of the process expanded into other manufacturing divisions. Among these were specific instructions to construct the manager’s house within full view of the entire plant. The sense of ownership transmitted by this policy no doubt contributed to the company’s meteoric success. Anyone living in modern times could easily relate to the reaction that an owner would have upon observing an unwelcome “visitor” disrespecting house rules – there would be no tolerance for any unacceptable behavior. The natural protective mechanism would be to automatically address a situation at the very instant it was detected. It would be a reflexive response similar to what could be expected when a needle touches the eyeball. The protective mechanism was immediate, direct, and exceedingly effective.

Things are very different today. Rarely would a plant manager or owner agree to entrust their family’s life in the hands of an employee (or guest) who demonstrates a questionable amount of respect toward process integrity. Yet the vulnerability of our processes is no different than before. Investigations into modern disasters consistently reveal causes rooted in preventable behaviors that can, and often do, undermine the integrity of the process. And when the integrity of the process is undermined, bad things will happen.

It is interesting and perhaps no surprise that modern facility siting principles are founded upon principles opposite of those adopted by the DuPont family. Instead of physically locating structures in locations that ensure a personal investment will govern process integrity, we build structures to withstand the impact of various process release scenarios. In cases where the blast model compromises our risk tolerance, we relocate buildings outside unit battery limits where the impact may be less destructive. While trying to become a safer and more protective industry, have we become more tolerant of the initiating event that makes bad things possible? After all, why prevent a blast when it is possible to theoretically design a process capable of withstanding it? Again, it appears that our interest has drifted away from incident prevention toward incident tolerance.

This is not to suggest that plant managers should consider relocating their residence to within process units. Although this action clearly produces a more instinctive response to a potential threat, this extreme approach is not really necessary. What we need is a more thoughtful attitude toward personal actions that protect our processes’ integrity. The attitude we need, in fact, is the same one demonstrated by an owner who suspects the security of his or her own home is about to be breached. In modern times, this attitude has proven to be exceedingly difficult to develop and preserve within the workforce.

The question comes down to what we define as our “house.” In the simplest of terms, our house is the place where we live. If this is true, then a manufacturing division is our figurative house. Although our physical homes are built a safe distance away from this location, we still spend a significant amount of time there. Some may even spend more time in their figurative house, with their figurative family, than at the physical location they call “home.” This mindset should drive us to immediately confront any potential threat to our process’ integrity. A careless attitude toward protecting the livelihood of our processes may be ignored by somehomeowners, but not in my house.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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