Online HAZOPs: Key lessons learned from remote working environments

The UK ended lockdown some months ago and while some of us have returned to some form of ‘normality’ in the workplace, there is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have revolutionised the way we work. Less than two years ago there were no debates surrounding the positives and negatives of working from home versus the office or what platforms would be best to host virtual team meetings. Yet here we are, our working lives and the way many industries operate have changed for good.

At the start of the first lockdown, we, like many in the industry, had to rethink and remodel the way we operate and the way we offer clients our process safety solutions. Unfortunately, safety does not stop. So, with the ability to meet physically limited by the pandemic, how could we continue to offer HAZOPs to ensure that those in the industry could continue to access this important process safety tool. Online HAZOPs became the solution. After optimising and undertaking many online HAZOPs in the last year and a half, what have we learnt?

What is a HAZOP?

A HAZOP study is one of the most popular Process Hazard Analysis tools available. Standing for Hazard and Operability, it involves a detailed methodology of investigating operability and safety issues in a processing facility when process parameters encounter deviation from design intent. Originally developed to examine risk of failure by the ICI in the late 1960s, the popularity of the tool accelerated after the Flixborough disaster, as multiple industries struggled to avert catastrophic failure from plant modifications.

As employers are obliged to protect employees during routine operations, the siting of new facilities and during the modification of an existing plant or its equipment, a HAZOP study is the best tool to address these safety concerns.

A HAZOP can be performed at various lifecycle stages of a process – starting from initial pilot scale development through Front End design and into commissioning. It can also be used during any ongoing modifications during operational lifespan. All necessary due diligence is addressed in detail throughout a HAZOP which makes it very popular with many regulatory bodies.

It is generally recommended to undertake a HAZOP study when all detailed design information is developed e.g., P&ID, process description, cause & effect. The HAZOP then starts by breaking down of P&IDs of complex processing facility into manageable chunk of unit operations, known as nodes. A standard set of deviation guidewords (e.g., more, less, no etc.) is applied to the design parameters (e.g. temperature, flow, composition etc.) within the nodes.

The Team Challenge

HAZOP studies are group exercises that rely on the collective knowledge of a multidisciplinary team. This multidisciplinary team usually consists of a group of dedicated and experienced discipline engineers alongside operational and maintenance personnel.

This team will then get involved in a discussion during a HAZOP session led by a facilitator (HAZOP leader or chair). During the session, the HAZOP leader will manage the momentum of the group by keeping the group focused and will control any unnecessary digression from the topic. During the discussion, outcomes are captured by a HAZOP scribe in a standardised template.

This is where the lockdown challenge lies. How can we bring together a multidisciplinary team that may consist of groups that do not usually work together and, in some cases, may live in different areas of the country and how can we share documents and workbooks?

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, arranging and conducting online HAZOP studies was the only viable solution. As communities and workplaces were suddenly placed under lockdown, many employees started working from home so demand was placed to conduct HAZOP studies remotely. Sigma-HSE was one of the pioneers to conduct HAZOP studies remotely during the pandemic using online platforms such as Microsoft Teams.

Online HAZOP Study Challenges

Fundamentally, an online HAZOP study is like the traditional HAZOP, but there are some caveats. These generally revolve around the use of technology and alternate online behaviours that many have been unaware of. After undertaking multiple online HAZOP studies over the last two years, here are our key findings from the experience:

  • Like a traditional HAZOP, all relevant documents (e.g., P&ID, Process Description, Cause & Effect Matrix) must be electronically circulated so all involved are familiar with the scope. This, at the very start of the pandemic was a problem across many industries. With the sudden move away from the office, the key challenge was the ability to create and then circulate documents electronically. Technology was a key factor in this and raised questions regarding document formatting (PDF, JPEG, PNG, Word etc) document programmes (Adobe, SmallPDF etc) and the quality of documents that have been upload if they were originally a hard copy.
  • A reliable and fast internet connection is a prerequisite. Any network disruption or slow internet connection has, at times, been detrimental to the momentum of the discussion. When undertaking online HAZOPs, we have experienced challenges during the early stages of the pandemic, as some participants in sessions faced internet connectivity issues. Although these issues were not severe, they did create lag that ultimately created overlapping discussions. However, our facilitator was able to steer the workshops through these specific challenges, so sessions were completed successfully.
  • Ensuring that all participants are fully conversant and comfortable with the online platform by which the online HAZOP studies were undertaken is another challenge. Many workspaces utilise programmes such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Hangouts and Slack to communicate internally, but during the early stages of the pandemic, participants have had to download, install and learn how to use different tools to communicate. Although many of these tools behave in similar ways, difficulties arose due to each tool’s interfaces. Familiarity with IT systems and virtual communication platforms are conducive for team engagement and luckily, as time progressed, general familiarisation with these products has improved.
  • Communication and behaviour in the digital world are different to that in real life, and as a result, virtual communication etiquette has, and continues to be, a challenge. There are many behavioural factors that can ensure that online HAZOP meetings run smoothly. Do you keep your camera on or off? Should you mute yourself when you’re not talking? What do you do if the doorbell rings or the dogs start barking? While behaviour doesn’t directly relate to the overall outputs of an online HAZOP, if digital etiquette is not followed, it can certainly become an issue to the flow of the workshop. Again, an online HAZOP leader or chair can steer the workshop through these specific challenges.
  • The more online HAZOP sessions we ran, it became clearer that participants in the group need to have access to a minimum of two computer monitors to increase productivity. Participants that had two screens were better able to refer to nodes on the P&ID while the HAZOP worksheet was being populated on the other screen. These are important aspects especially if the discussion moves at pace. Although it may initially seem like a costly investment, we discovered that there was a drastic increase in productivity between two screened participants versus those with only a single screen.
  • As the online HAZOP participants were remotely located, team fatigue and interactions were not as easily understood when compared to the traditional HAZOP. Body language and nonverbal cues were not as visible through a computer screen as they usually are when completed face-to-face. Through trial and error, we at Sigma-HSE managed to optimise online HAZOP sessions via the following formula. Optimal sessions were carried out for 4-6 hours a day, with frequent breaks to help ensure that all team members are active, responsive and able to manage ‘screen’ fatigue. We also conduct a pre-session meeting (3 days before the session) with all team members. In this short meeting, all participants are instructed on the Process, P&IDs, operating procedures, interlocks and HAZOP procedure/ worksheet formats. This ultimately helped all team members to study relevant materials and understand the main points of discussion before the HAZOP session began.

Online HAZOP Advantages

  • A key advantage of the online HAZOP study is that sessions can be conducted from different locations. This could therefore allow participants from different time zones to be present during the discussion. Although this is a huge advantage for global businesses that may have employees working from around the world, the timing of such sessions should be arranged suitably, so that it does not interfere with the circadian rhythm of the participants working to different time zones.
  • Online HAZOP sessions have also become easier to arrange and schedule compared to the traditional face-to-face HAZOP. As many complex projects will have different stake holders present at different operating sites or countries, it has, at times, been a challenge to schedule a meeting whereby all team members could be present at one physical location. Depending on the complexities of a particular business or project, it can take months to organise a date, time and location to meet on site. At Sigma-HSE, we have seen the time between an online HAZOP booking enquiry and a completed HAZOP study almost half. This has occurred because of the online HAZOP solution.
  • Since physical presence on site is not a requirement of an online HAZOP session, businesses have been able to reduce the costs associated with logistics and amenities for host the organisation. As an online HAZOP can be completed by a consultant that is situated anywhere in the world, travel, accommodation and other logistical costs have become obsolete.

HAZOP leaders from Sigma HSE:

Sigma-HSE offer physical and online HAZOP solutions via accredited HAZOP consultants. Our leaders have a vast array of knowledge and expertise in leading HAZOP studies for a range of industries including oil & gas, petrochemical, pharmaceutical and food & beverage industries.

Our independent HAZOP leaders can aid in leading a HAZOP team towards high-quality decisions by consolidating on a shared perspective of the team members. Since our HAZOP leaders are not part of an operating organisation, their decision-making processes remain unbiased. This provides actionable key insights in identifying ‘blind spots’ which may easily be overlooked by other members of an operating organisation. Our independent consultants also challenge the ‘status quo’ and direct teams to think from fresh and often innovative perspectives.

On previous occasions, Sigma-HSE consultants have saved clients from significant risks and consequences involved in various project stages. The ability to work closely with client and understand and communicate the client need succinctly gives Sigma-HSE an edge in HAZOP consultancy.

Our online solutions also include HAZOP, HAZID, What-If, LOPA sessions, FERA, QRA, Dispersion and Consequence Modelling, desktop HAC, DSEAR and ATEX assessments for all new plants or upcoming sections of the plant.

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Sigma-HSE welcomes Michelle Murphy as the new President of Sigma-HSE INC., the North American division of the Sigma-HSE group.