I don’t like being told that what I am doing is wrong. Even if I recognise what I am doing is wrong. In fact, especially if I recognise what I’m doing is wrong. I imagine you are probably the same. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that we correlate this assertion with an implication that we should, in some way, change our behaviour.

And that can make us feel very uncomfortable.

‘People have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option’, say Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, where they cite research which shows that ‘whatever the default choices are, many people stick with them, even when the stakes are much higher than choosing the noise your phone makes when it rings’. In other words, you are comfortable with your context – the world in and around you, which, in effect, is your personal culture. 

‘Roughly speaking, losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same things makes you happy’. Accordingly, this ‘loss aversion produces inertia, translating to a strong desire to stick with your current culture’. This, paradoxically, can mean that you are comfortable with contexts which are harmful and reluctant and uncomfortable to move to those which are healthier.

In the realm of an existing organisational or site Process Safety Culture, the context is already established. Which is fine if it is healthy. If, however, it is not, those who are operating within it can find it very difficult to challenge, even if they recognise it as toxic. So, you may fatalistically feel that the only hope for the migration of optimum PS culture throughout our industry is a Darwinian culling, where the worst offenders suffer major incidents and go out of business (Union Carbide anyone?).

I believe, with some help from Thaler and Cas, we can steer a less bloody route.

Nudging implies changing, perhaps gradually, the architecture of the context in small but significant ways, such that the inhabitants are either unaware of the change or aren’t panicked by its pace. Welcome to their world of ‘Libertarian Paternalism: the idea that it is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to implement ideas which affect behaviour while, at the same time, respecting freedom of choice’. Approaches they suggest for organisations to nudge its members to make better decisions (spiced with my own PS flavouring) include:

  • The powerful gravity of the Status Quo (Another dissenting opinion greatly increases momentum building and disrupting groupthink in, for example, the Texas City Portacabins siting Risk Assessment)
  • ‘Individuals make pretty bad decisions – decisions they would not have made if they had paid full attention and possessed complete information, unlimited cognitive abilities, and complete self-control.’ (I have found that, by postponing a thorny issue at the end of a HAZOP day until the following morning, the discussion time is significantly reduced – 30 to 5 mins)
  • ‘Adults can be greatly influenced by small changes in the context.’ (Similar and geographically close process operators can often have wide variations in their appearance which is linked to Process Safety culture. Eley, a Birmingham based explosives company I have worked with has a spotlessly clean and tidy plant. They may be amenable to offering a plant tour if requested by neighbouring facilities)
  • ‘Accessibility and salience are closely related to availability and they are more important as well.’ (Fortunately, PS incidents are very infrequent, but this means that they are neither accessible or salient. This is exacerbated if companies down-play, ignore or even deny minor incidents or ‘but for luck’ near-misses. In recent Linde SABIC ASU 9 HAZOP, which I chaired, SABIC were pro-active in highlighting incident, near misses, including root causes from previous ASU projects (1-8) as contextual info to help improve outcomes and lower residual risk while expanding their accessibility and salience.)
  • ‘The pervasive problems are that easily remembered events may inflate people’s probability judgements and that if no such events come to mind, their judgements of likelihoods might be distorted downwards.’ (In my Hazards 28 presentation ‘The Gamification of Process Safety’, I suggested Near Miss intervention could be highlighted and rewarded by generating a simulation/animation of the event)
  • ‘It turns out that if you ask people, the day before an election, whether they intend to vote, you can increase the probability of their voting by as much as 25%’ (Toolbox talks reminding teams of safety feedback forms and monthly prize draw)
  • ‘Even in less exotic locales, it can be smart to let someone else choose for you’. (Encouraging new starts to ask open PS questions by showcasing this within teams which they have become a part of.)
  • ‘Defaults are ubiquitous and powerful. They are also unavoidable in the sense that for any node of a choice architecture system, there must be an associated rule that determines what happens to the decision maker if she does nothing.’ (A company leader (CEO, Ops Director) walking around the plant and demonstrating good PS behaviour – asking open PS questions, engaging in local plant housekeeping. The observation of the sincere actions of leaders is an extremely powerful motivator to challenge and reset the default.)
  • ‘If you indirectly influence the choice other people make, you are a choice architect’ (BP Acetyls in Hull, England have built a state of the art, immersive 3D training simulator which enables new and inexperienced operators to practice hazardous operations safely. Why not tweak (nudge?!) this amenity to create an operating context which is Process Safety optimised.

BP Acetyls 3D Immersive