Safety: Learning to Think the Right Way

During the course of any day at a chemical process plant, workers have to make decisions that are often small and seemingly mundane, but in a rare occurrence an incident breaks out and the right response has to happen. And it has to happen now.

How can those involved make the right decision?

“We must invest in allowing our workers to make better decisions,” said Jennifer McDonald, EHS – process safety at W.R. Grace during a session at the 2020 Virtual AIChE Spring Meeting & 16th Global Conference on Process Safety entitled “I Just Didn’t Think” – Improving Situational Awareness. “We must invest in teaching employees to make safer decisions.”

McDonald, who gave one of three presentations on the topic, pointed out the National Safety Council (NSC) said a worker is injured on the job every seven seconds. The lack of hazard recognition and poor decision making are some reasons why that happens.

factory worker in reflective vest with plant behind

Walking the stairs: An industrial process safety example

McDonald emphasized this with an analogy about a person walking up the stairs. One case is when someone walks up the stairs without an issue and doesn’t notice a loose stair near the top. That’s lucky. In another instance, a person walks up the stairs and notices one stair is loose near the top. That is a near miss. In another, a person walks up the stairs and trips on the loose stair near the top, breaking an ankle. That is a recordable injury. A final scenario is a person walks up the stairs, trips on the loose stair and falls down the stairs causing a fatality.

All those cases point to a need for corrective behavior where the person:

  • Preserves the scene
  • Collects information
  • Determines root cause
  • Implements correct action

Process safety: 5 stages of post incident behavior-based (PIBB) discussion

When a near miss occurs, the person must investigate to find the root cause and then implement a corrective action. That where McDonald said a post incident behavior-based (PIBB) discussion comes in.

At that point, McDonald said, engage employees involved in a conversation rooted in hazard recognition to promote changed behavior in a neutral location.

There are five phases of PIBB discussion:

  1. Invest in employees
  2. Realize leadership
  3. Understand sensory experience
  4. Revealing vulnerabilities
  5. Foster motivation
Overhead 4 Workers discussing safety Report

Promote hazard recognition to improve safety

The goal with PIBB is to engage the employee in a conversation rooted in hazard recognition to promote changed behavior and a safer environment.

Meanwhile, promoting changed behavior works, but understanding the psychology behind decision also helps.

There is the conscious awareness, but the more dominant subconscious making most of our decisions without being consciously aware of it.

“Our subconscious is making more decisions which is where 95 percent of judgement and decision making comes from,” said Dave Grattan, process safety engineer at aeSolutions, during his portion of the session.

In any safety-critical task, it can always be broken down into three questions: What? So what? And what now?

The what is to become aware of a problem dependent on the external issue. We see with our brains and not with our eyes. Our brain has picked up from the stored library created over the years.


Five techniques to improve process safety

So what needs to be interpreted and diagnosed, depending on the worker, affects how they make decisions as well as their psychology. They need to call on these skills and use inductive reasoning to make better choices to improve industrial process safety.

What can we do to become more aware of what is occurring in front of our very eyes and not rely on the subconscious include these five techniques :

  1. Create strong cues from the environment
  2. Design for the principle of least effort
  3. Develop good habits related to task execution
  4. Drill skill-based intuition
  5. Use framing and loss aversion.


Factory worker with blue hard hat and plan scene behind him

Mind mapping and process safety

Instead of understanding the psychology of the worker, T. Michael O’Connor, research associate at the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center, is looking a mind mapping techniques.

“There is the inability of organizations to learn from an incident, retain the knowledge and then recall it when needed,” he said. “We have gaps; a failure to organize past experiences in a useful framework.”

To bridge those gaps, O’Connor said they use mind mapping tools to help discover a conceptual organization of key factors in incidents where they collect incident and harmful outcomes, analyze and extract key learnings, and organize the hazard for each type of task using a mind map.

A mind map is a diagram used to represent words and ideas linked around a central key word. The goal is to provide an intuitive tool for organizing hazards associated with a task.

Mind-mapping offers a means to organize and assist in the recall of hazards that have resulted in previous incidents. This helps identify hazards hidden from view, which are not normally encountered and to organize them in a way that is easy to recall or identify. Applying this method can improve procedures as well as training and act as a check for those directly involved before undertaking a hazardous task.


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Gregory Hale is the editor and founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source (, a CFE Media content partner. This article originally appeared on ISSSource’s website. Edited by Chris Vavra, associate editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

View the original article and related content on Control Engineering

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