In Praise of Gut Feeling

Author: Angus Keddie

Process Safety Matters

The gut has a mind of its own, the “enteric nervous system”. Just like the larger brain in the head, researchers say, this system sends and receives impulses, records experiences and respond to emotions. Its nerve cells are bathed and influenced by the same neurotransmitters. The gut contains 500 million neurons – more than the spinal cord. And more than in the brain of a mouse, rat or even ferret. So, if a rodent can find food, escape danger, learn to spin on cue within 5 minutes, I think it’s reasonable to assume that your gut can help you in ways that appear to have no foundation.

And by foundation, I mean numbers. Probability, frequency, orders of magnitude, positive, negative, fractions, imaginary. The foundation, in fact, of Process Safety. Ever since the dawn of Process Safety, when Du Pont at their Brandywine gunpowder facility in the early 19th century started to modify their process designs and practices following a spate of fatal explosions, our discipline has been rooted in statistical data. Rightly so, as if we don’t measure stuff, especially bad stuff which has happened, we rely solely on intuition to determine future actions. Today, more than ever, we have the computational tools to sift and analyse gargantuan amounts of data for this purpose. So, perhaps, you might say, job done.

However, I would say that, if we rely solely on logic and data, we dismiss a resource that all of us possess: one which only improves with age. Gut feeling. I would argue that gut feeling draws on the accumulation of individual experiences over a lifetime. It is probably the reason you feel uncomfortable in the presence of dogs if you were bitten by one as a child; the reason you feel happy when you meet a close friend after a long absence; the reason you feel sad when you see a cat which resembles your one which died; perhaps also the reason plant workers feel uncomfortable if they become of aware of something untoward during their rounds.

As a man in his mid-fifties, I have accumulated around 300,000 hours of experience (50x16x365), not all of which (in fact probably a pretty small proportion) is useful in any one situation. However, because (as was the case) I was almost asphyxiated when working as a commissioning engineer for the Innovene Gas Phase Polyethylene Technology plant at Nagothane in India in 1991, I now find myself feeling particularly uneasy if I sense a comparable situation in my surroundings.

RasGas, a major Qatari LNG producer, recognised this valuable dynamic of this accumulated experience by empowering its operators to act on their gut feeling, in some cases to stop production, leading to considerable expensive downtime and re-start costs. The operators are encouraged to act in this way and praised when they do. RasGas recorded a 93% decrease in Total Recordable Injuries Rate (TRIR) between 2005 and 2015. As Trevor Kletz used to say ‘if you think safety is expensive, try an accident’.

How to Capture Lessons Learnt? 

However, what we cannot do, on our own, is to leverage external experience – that of the other 7 billion people on the planet and all those no longer with us. So that’s where big data can complement. Could we fuse external and internal data in a balanced way for Process Safety optimisation? Perhaps we could empower employees to tour the facility and be alert to anything out of the ordinary and supplement this with ‘Google Glass’ dynamic monitoring, which would:

  • Upload Key Process Parameter and Condition Based Monitoring Data
  • Overlay dynamic plant condition observations
  • Trigger triaged warnings:
    • Red – immediate plant shutdown
    • Orange – investigate and risk assess
    • Yellow – Periodic monitoring
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