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Adapting to remote HAZOP studies

28 September 2020

Robert Bussey offers advice on conducting successful remote hazard studies. 

Across the globe businesses are having to adjust to a new way of working with many working remotely, where possible. Despite this, there remains a regulatory duty on employers to ensure processes and operations are designed and operate safely. With this in mind, many businesses are now investigating conducting team-based hazard studies using video conferencing technology.

There are a wide variety of risk assessment techniques available to companies, with Hazard and Operability (HAZOP) probably being the most well-known, particularly in the high hazard industries. HAZOP is a collaborative team based exercise where the process to be evaluated is analysed piece by piece in a formal, structured manner. 

Social distancing has meant the traditional HAZOP format – where a multi-disciplinary team gathers around a conference table with a group of P&IDs, is no longer possible. However, it is possible to keep projects on schedule without compromising quality. 

Although conducting a HAZOP remotely may seem unconventional, most of the standard rules that you would expect in a face-to-face meeting apply equally to a remote study. Recent experience has demonstrated several new behaviours that benefit the overall performance of the meeting. One of the difficulties in online meetings can be multiple people talking simultaneously and none of them being able to make their point. Rather than talking over one another, people seem to be waiting for a natural lull before speaking.

Much of the following advice assumes HAZOP as the methodology of choice. But this is far from the only available technique and may not be the best option. If the project is at an early stage of development checklists, ‘what-if?’ or brainstorming studies may be more appropriate.

While preparation may seem obvious, it is even more essential when working remotely. Typical documentation for a standard HAZOP includes P&IDs, safety data sheets, process description, flow diagrams and operating procedures. There is a lot of material so accessibility to key study information will ensure consistency and quality. In this case through, ‘accessible’ has a broad range of meanings. For example; can the team access the documentation online.

Check the technology
There is a wide selection of meeting software available ranging from the simple, freely available to more sophisticated, corporate licensed applications. If the HAZOP is being held within the same organisation, then it is reasonable to imagine that the technology is tried and tested. However, if using an external HAZOP chairman, or, if you have invited an equipment vendor, then it is worthwhile arranging for a preparatory meeting to ensure all parties can join the presentation. Recent glitches experienced include:
• VPN software interfering with the data transfer.
• Company firewalls limiting accessibility.
• Team members using different application software or a different version number of the same application. This may be further complicated by company security settings preventing installation of the correct package.

Many meeting applications provide a browser-based option, but even these can have issues, often not working on particular browser. Remember, you cannot see what the other people on the call can see and browser-based systems may have reduced functionality compared with a desktop application
Finally, when all of this has been dealt with, are you sure everyone knows how to use the application?

Scheduling rest periods is as important in a remote HAZOP as it is in a face-to-face meeting room – and probably even more so. Remember that not everyone will have their camera on, so visual cues may no longer be available. In addition to plenty of breaks, the HAZOP leader needs to make sure that the meeting doesn’t start too early and don’t finish too late. It is best not to start before 9am and aim to finish before 4pm, allowing for an hour lunch break, means that the study is less than six hours long. The team will be spending a great deal of time focussing on a display screen, along with listening intently with headphones so inevitably fatigue will set in and the quality of the study will suffer. Also bear in mind the potential different time zones of the HAZOP team members.

Use a scribe
In the past I have conducted HAZOPs where I was both chairman and scribe. This is not considered good practice but was, on occasion, necessary due to cost or resource availability. Remote HAZOPs should employ scribes and ideally an experienced one who can anticipate what needs to be recorded. This allows the chairman to maintain focus and pick up on any cues from the team, while the scribe can concentrate upon accurately minuting the meeting.

Turn off phones
I recently chaired a HAZOP where someone’s phone rang – it happens – except this individual answered their phone and proceeded to have a conversation without muting themselves. Ordinarily, in a HAZOP, team members will step out if they need to take a call, but as we are all working at home, we are in our comfort zone and forget that the virtual meeting is still work.

The mechanics 
The previous paragraphs describe some of the issues that need to be considered.  Next we focus on the mechanics of the study itself:

• Before starting, ensure everyone is familiar with the HAZOP methodology. Briefly describe how you intend to present the HAZOP.
• Display the P&ID that will be reviewed including the highlighted node. Most software applications with drawing functions provide highlighting as an option allowing the node to be marked up prior to the meeting.
• Ask someone, such as the lead process engineer to describe the overall process then more specifically the node under review. The intent is, firstly to ensure there is sufficient knowledge of the process design and secondly to define the scope of the study and ensure the team are aligned. I often use this as an opportunity to ask additional questions to gain a fuller picture.
• Following the description, the HAZOP worksheet is presented on screen and the team proceeds as per a normal HAZOP, with guidewords and parameters.
• During the study it is necessary to regularly confirm the team agree with the minutes being presented. This ensures that no one has dropped off the call.
• Whenever an action is written make sure a responsible person is assigned.
• At the end of each node explicitly check that everyone is happy to proceed to the next node.
• Finally, once the study is complete ‘go round the table’ asking each person in turn whether they have anything to add. I often also ask if the study covered everything that they wanted.

As a final note, the HAZOP Leader needs to be patient with the team – try and keep the mood light to ensure energy levels in the room remain high and productive. 

Yes, there will be interruptions during the meetings – people will sometimes forget they are on mute, and technology may misbehave – but as everyone is working within the same constraints, the team needs to actively embrace the situation and continue to work as a team.

Robert Bussey is process safety manager at BPE Colden Common.

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