By Janet Lane
In Vancouver Sun
February 11, 2017
Just as we want to ensure greater reliability and safety of pipelines — and despite huge advances in pipeline, valve and monitoring technology — we learn that human error is a problem. Human error is increasingly a factor contributing to pipeline leaks, according to new National Energy Board data.
It turns out that it’s not new materials or new technologies that are needed to improve safety, it’s the way the pipeline is laid in the first place that is causing many of the leaks. Faulty bolt tightening, too shallow pipe placement, lack of attention to detail, failing to follow procedures — these are human errors. Members of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association have recently implemented new safety practices, which are helping to reduce the problems.
It’s apparently costly to implement safety, but it’s costlier not to. Fortunately, it’s possible to work more safely, but it takes a major shift in the way we look at human competence.
Safe, quality production should be the goal of every industrial business. The key to safe, quality production is reducing human error — by increasing human competence. When pipeline workers are truly competent, they work safely, they do their jobs well and they’re productive. The added benefits include reductions in the need for costly do-overs, reduced contingencies applied to the budgeted cost of a project, fewer leaks and less damage to reputations.
The Canada West Foundation is just completing a case study of a firm in Alberta (with world-class safety credentials) whose leadership team decided, after some bad industrial accidents, that never again would they be responsible for someone almost dying on the job. They decided to train and assess their workforce on the basis of competencies, rather than just accept official credentials. It has taken time to develop the competency profiles for their workers, document exactly what it is that workers do, how they need to do it, what constitutes various levels of competence and to train their foremen to assess these things objectively. But, four years on they have had a massive turnaround in their safety record and they have had work even during the Alberta downturn. What’s more, other firms are noticing and are asking them how they too can implement their program.
It’s not just a question of employee safety on the job — it’s also a question of employees doing their jobs well, so that what they produce and build is also safe for the community around them. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that their workers are safe and that the work they do meets safety standards. But all too often, certificates from post-secondary institutions and other training programs are used as a proxy for competence. World-class safety programs can be an exercise in checking boxes, and daily tool-time talks that don’t fully identify the risks involved in the work of the day. Regulations are in place to “ensure that the job is done right.”
But regulations don’t overcome the fact that doing things right doesn’t necessarily mean always doing the right things right. This Alberta firm started to do the right things right. They stopped taking certificates from training programs as a proxy for competence. They took a hard look at whether their workers were actually able to do the tasks they’re assigned each day. And they implemented a training program through which their most competent workers mentor people who need training.
We can work safely and build things that are safer and better for our communities — by ensuring that workers are competent. Implementing a competency program takes some time and effort, and leadership support. But where public trust is at issue, it’s now a must.
Janet Lane is director of the Human Capital Centre at the Canada West Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank focused on the concerns of Western Canadians and Canada as a whole.