Force majeure meaning "superior force", also known as casus fortuitus (Latin) "chance occurrence, unavoidable accident",is an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond control and reasonable anticipation. An incident which, at the same time as being very rare, can have a significant and often detrimental impact.

I was a victim of such an event last weekend. I cycled to my local station in order to take a commuter train to London to chair a HAZOP. When I arrived, passengers were milling around the station concourse and I quickly surmised that a tree had fallen on the track, preventing any train movement. As I had a folding bike, I, along with 3 fellow commuters, took a taxi to the nearest station which had trains coming from other routes. Unfortunately, we got caught up in the ‘school run’, so I decided to hop out and cycle the rest of the way. Once I’d ascertained my new ETA, I communicated this to my client. Not surprisingly, the train I did catch was extremely full and therefore rather uncomfortable, but once I reached London, I sped along the South Bank of the Thames to get to work.

So, aside from an amusing anecdote, what did I learn from this experience? We already know that such events are rare, often vanishingly so. Consequently, our preparedness for their occurrence is at best limited. We learn best when we react or proact in any given situation, digesting the outcome and formulating a plan for recurrence. However, with a Force Majeure type event, we are seldom afforded this opportunity. Another feature is that they often have significant impact (otherwise, I guess, they’d be Force Mineure and we’d hardly notice them). Consequently, how were respond to them becomes more important - in some cases life saving.

Which creates a quandary. How do you best ready yourself for a rare but impactful event? This is a practical consideration in my professional world where Process Safety Disasters are fortunately very rare but always costly and frequently deadly: Deepwater Horizon, Piper Alpha, Bhopal or Texas City. You can undertake planned disaster training. While better than nothing, any planned and scheduled alert may fall into the same category as flight safety demonstrations, where the knowledge of the contrivance and its familiarity severely lowers the learning iquotient. But what if you didn’t know the test was, well, a test?

This scenario occurred to me when I was carrying out a HAZOP/HAZID closeout on an Oil Production facility in Kurdistan a few years ago. The well fluid being produced contained around 2% H2S, a toxic gas which is lethal if inhaled at concentrations of 0.1%. Accordingly, one of the items to close out was a planned toxic gas alert. The day before, a fixed H2S detector triggered an alarm, to which the workforce reacted promptly and effectively. And this made me think - what if the alarm was contrived but unscheduled. Without additional information, the workforce would react as if the threat was real and thus optimise their learning, making them safer if and when a real leak occurred.

Which is all good until, inevitably, the workforce finds out that they have been misled (albeit for the best of reasons) and that most powerful and sacred of bonds - trust - is broken. Unstitching the entire benefit of the initiative.

So still in the quandary? Well, perhaps there is another way. How about telling the workforce from the start that, in order to minimise their risk of a force majeure type event, there will be a combination of scheduled and unannounced alerts. The scheduled ones will allow them to calmly practice the correct response, which they have learned in the classroom and, crucially, honed during the unannounced alerts. And there would be learning benefits for the company as well. As they are managing the unannounced alerts, they would be in a position to observe the reactions of the workforce and prepare and communicate appropriate improvements.