Adapting to implementing remote hazard and operability (HAZOP) studies

Across the globe, with many of their staff working from home, businesses are having to adjust to the new normal. Unlike previous generations, many of us spend a significant proportion of our regular working lives sat behind a desk, using a computer. In many ways, we are fortunate to still be able contribute, notes Robert Bussey, Process Safety Manager, BPE

Modern industry is highly adaptable and, in these uncertain times, there is still a need and desire to continue with some semblance of normality.

Nevertheless, there remains a regulatory obligation for employers to ensure that processes and operations are designed and operate safely. With this in mind, many businesses are now investigating team-based hazard studies using video conferencing technology.

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

Social distancing has meant the traditional HAZOP format, in which a multidisciplinary team gathers around a conference table with a group of P&IDs, is no longer possible. However, at BPE, our experience in leading HAZOPs has allowed us to continue to support our clients and keep projects on schedule without compromising on quality. Below, we offer some of the lessons we have learned.

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. Surprisingly, our experience of running online HAZOPs has been very positive.

As individuals we seem to have adapted to a new meeting etiquette that’s quite different to that of a face-to-face encounter. Recent experience has demonstrated several new behaviours that benefit the overall performance of the meeting.

One of the difficulties associated with online meetings can be multiple people talking simultaneously and none of them being able to make their point. Rather than talking across one another, people seem to wait for a natural lull before speaking. Despite our best efforts, side conversations in a group meeting are inevitable; but, in virtual meetings, this is no longer possible.

Choose the right type of study

Much of the advice included below 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 analyses or brainstorming studies may be more appropriate.

Preparation

Although 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 descriptions, flow diagrams and operating procedures amongst others.

There is a lot of material and accessibility to key study information will ensure consistency and quality. In this case, though, “accessible” has a broad range of meanings, such as

  • can the team access the documentation online?
  • do they have the necessary network access?
  • do they require a VPN (a virtual private network is a way of extending network privacy across a public network as if on the company network)?

Maybe team members were sent e-mail versions of the documents, in which case, are you sure the team are all using the same version?

Don’t forget that many of the face to face meeting options we take for granted, such as quickly running down the corridor to make extra copies of P&IDs, are no longer available.

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’s reasonable to imagine that the technology is tried and tested.

However, if using an external HAZOP chairperson or, if you have invited an equipment vendor, then it’s 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 applications/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 their issues, often not working on your particular browser. Remember, you can’t 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?

Plenty of breaks

Scheduling rest periods is as important in a remote HAZOP as it is in a face-to-face meeting room … and probably more so. Many of us will have improvised a workstation to allow us to work from home. Perhaps the chair we are using is not the comfortable, ergonomic chair that we find throughout modern offices, and maybe some of us are hunched over a laptop with limited screen size.

And I am sure we have all developed the habit of breaking the monotony of the day by making lots of coffee. All of these factors mean that we need to ensure that rest breaks are frequent and of reasonable duration. Remember that not everyone will have their camera on, so visual cues may no longer be available to you as a chairperson.

In addition to plenty of breaks, the HAZOP leader needs to make sure that the meeting doesn’t start too early or finish too late. In our experience, it is best not to start before 9 AM and should aim to finish before 4 PM, allowing for an hour lunch break.

This means that the exercise is less than 6 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.

Use a scribe

In the past, I have conducted HAZOPs during which I was both chair and scribe. This is not considered good practice but was, on occasion, necessary owing 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 chair to maintain focus and pick up on any cues from the team, while the scribe can concentrate upon accurately minuting the meeting.

Location/time zone

The advent of the Internet and global connectivity has meant that team members can join in from anywhere in the world. This innovation may mean that your 9 AM meeting is in fact their 4 AM meeting, so it is worth being mindful of this.

Number of people on call

How many people are on the conference call? When conducting a standard HAZOP, the number of people that make up the team will typically be between 6 and 10, with the maximum number often limited by the size of the meeting room. With online meeting technology, there is practically no limit to the number of people that could join a HAZOP.

The current situation may lead people, who would otherwise be occupied, to attend, as they are now freely available. This should be discouraged, not necessarily because of meeting discipline, but rather because of Internet bandwidth.

The infrastructure available to most allows us to video call friends and family with ease. However, a small minority may have limited bandwidth and, coupled with the demands of video, the quality of broadcasting soon diminishes.

Turn off phones

During the lockdown period, many of us have set aside a workspace in our homes to allow us to continue to work. Inevitably, we keep our mobile phones next to our workstations in case someone needs to contact us; but, human nature being what it is, we forget about them.

I recently chaired a HAZOP when 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 of the HAZOP itself

In the previous paragraphs, we have described some of the issues that we need to consider. Here is an outline of the mechanics of a study

  • 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, first, 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, check that everyone is happy to proceed to the next one
  • Finally, once the study is complete, go “around the table” and ask each person in turn whether they have anything additional to add; I often also ask if the study covered everything that they wanted.

At BPE, we now routinely apply this experience to other project activities including design and 3D model reviews. As a final note, the HAZOP leader needs to be patient with the team and keep the mood light to ensure energy levels in the room remain high and productive.

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 whilst all working together. Stay safe and happy HAZOPing!

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