Once upon a time there was a Swiss boy who loved the mountains. Every spare minute he had after school, on weekends and, especially, during his long summer holidays, he would lace up his hiking boots and stride out of the back door of his house. He would scramble up scree, race over rocks, bound round boulders. He especially enjoyed digging out his climbing equipment and scaling the small vertical cliff behind the orchard and sitting atop looking towards the sunset.

The boy, Peter, had a best friend: Antoine. They were inseparable. Antoine loved the mountains as much as Peter and joined in his every adventure. They bonded, in part, because of their distinct characters. Peter was shy and studious while Antoine was more outgoing, some saying even a bit reckless.

One Friday after school, with the weekend stretched ahead, Peter sped out the back door as usual to meet Antoine. They quickly decided they’d scale the cliff before hiking to the café in the meadow. They got to the base as they’d done countless times before. But this time Antoine said – let’s free climb it.

No cried Peter, it’s too risky – we might fall.

Nonsense retorted Antoine. We’ve done it so many times before with climbing equipment, there’s practically no risk.

But I’m scared protested Peter.

Well, you stay at the base and watch me do it then responded Antoine.

So, Antoine started climbing. He was right that the climb was easy for him as he was extremely familiar with it. As he approached the top, he stopped for a moment and looked triumphantly down at Peter. Just then, spotting a small mammal in a small crack near Antoine, a hawk swooped towards the cliff face. Disturbed by this unexpected occurrence and already slightly unbalanced, Antoine lost his grip and fell.

Peter never went back to the cliff or its summit. Peter grew up to excel at University and his chosen career, to the extent that, years later, he became CEO of a major international oil company. During that time, he befriended Tony his counterpart in another such company. Peter was drawn to Tony in part because he seemed to have some of the same characteristics of his childhood friend Antoine.

In March 2010, Tony’s company suffered a major Process Safety incident which left 11 dead, generated a major oil spill and cost his company tens of billions of dollars. Peter was chastened by this event, as he felt that his own company was vulnerable. Accordingly, he commissioned a report on the incident and mandated that the recommendations therefrom be implemented swiftly, since which time Peter’s company has avoided events of such magnitude.

The end.

As with all fables, there are overlapping elements of truth and learning contained within the story. For me, the learning is that, although the report was in fact commissioned by Tony’s company, it is indeed the competitors at whom its conclusions should be targeted. It goes (almost) without saying that Tony’s company will implement such that the likelihood of a recurrence is slim. However, competitors who have a comparable business ecosystem, are also likely to be exposed to the same risks (similar facilities, similar operators), but may be significantly more complacent.

As Glenn Erwin of the United Steelworkers Union said in the wake of another Process Safety disaster (Texas City 2005, which caused 15 deaths), My fear is that some of the other operators feel that it couldn’t happen at their sites and they are the ones which are set up to have it happen there.

peter voser