System Safety

Reflections on a Career in Safety, Part 2

In ‘Reflections on a Career in Safety, Part 2’ I move on to …

Different Kinds of Safety

So I’m going to talk a little bit about highlights, that I hope you’ll find useful.  I went straight from university into the Air Force and went from this kind of [academic] environment to heavy metal, basically.  I guess it’s obvious that wherever you are if you’re doing anything in industry, workplace health and safety is important because you can hurt people quite quickly. 

Workplace Health and Safety

In my very first job, we had people doing welding, high voltage electrics, heavy mechanical things; all [the equipment was] built out of centimeter-thick steel. It was tough stuff and people still managed to bend it. So the amount of energy that was rocking around there, you could very easily hurt people.  Even the painters – that sounds like a safe job, doesn’t it? – but aircraft paint at that time a cyanoacrylate. It was a compound of cyanide that we used to paint aeroplanes with.

All the painters and finishers had to wear head-to-toe protective equipment and breathing apparatus. If you’re giving people air to breathe, if you get that wrong, you can hurt people quite quickly. So even managing the hazards of the workplace introduced further hazards that all had to be very carefully controlled.

Photo by Ömer Yıldız on Unsplash

And because you’re in operations, all the decisions about what kind of risks and hazards you’re going to face, they’ve already been made long before.  Decisions that were made years ago, when a new plane or ship or whatever it was, was being bought and being introduced [into service]. Decisions made back then, sometimes without realizing it, meant that we were faced with handling certain hazards and you couldn’t get rid of them. You just had to manage them as best you could.

Overall, I think we did pretty well. Injuries were rare, despite the very exciting things that we were dealing with sometimes.  We didn’t have too many near misses – not that we heard about anyway. Nevertheless, that [risk] was always there in the background. You’re always trying to control these things and stop them from getting out of control.

One of the things about a workplace in operations and support, whether you’re running a fleet of aeroplanes or you’re servicing some kit for somebody else and then returning it to them, it tends to be quite a people-centric job. So, large groups of people doing the job, supervision, organization, all that kind of stuff.  And that can all seem very mundane, a lot of HR-type stuff. But it’s important and it’s got to be dealt with.

So the real world of managing people is a lot of logistics. Making sure that everybody you need is available to do the work, making sure that they’ve got all the kit, all the technical publications that tell them what to do, the information that they need.  It’s very different to university – a lot of seemingly mundane stuff – but it’s got to be got right because the consequences of stuffing up can be quite serious.

Safe Systems of Work

So moving on to some slightly different topics, when I got onto working with Aeroplanes, there was an emphasis on a safe system of work, because doing maintenance on a very complex aeroplane was quite an involved process and it had to be carefully controlled. So we would have what’s usually referred to as a Permit to Work system where you very tightly control what people are allowed to do to any particular plane. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a plane or a big piece of mining equipment or you’re sending people in to do maintenance on infrastructure; whatever it might be, you’ve got to make sure that the power is disconnected before people start pulling it apart, et cetera, et cetera.

Photo by Leon Dewiwje on Unsplash

And then when you put it back together again, you’ve got to make sure that there aren’t any bits leftover and everything works before you hand it back to the operators because they’re going to go and do some crazy stuff with it. You want to make sure that the plane works properly. So there was an awful lot of process in that. And in those days, it was a paperwork process. These days, I guess a lot would be computerized, but it’s still the same process.

If you muck up the process, it doesn’t matter whether [it is paper-based or not].  If you’ve got a rubbish process, you’re going to get rubbish results and it [computerization] doesn’t change that. You just stuff up more quickly because you’ve got a more powerful tool. And for certain things we had to take, I’ve called it special measures. In my case, we were a strike squadron, which meant our planes would carry nuclear weapons if they had to.

Special Processes for Special Risks

So if the Soviets charged across the border with 20,000 tanks and we couldn’t stop them, then it was time to use – we called them buckets of sunshine. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Anyway, so there were some fairly particular processes and rules for looking after buckets of sunshine. And I’m glad to say we only ever used dummies. But when you when the convoy arrived and yours truly has to sign for the weapon and then the team starts loading it, then that does concentrate your mind as an engineer. I think I was twenty-two, twenty-three at the time.  

Photo by Oscar Ävalos on Unsplash

Somebody on [our Air Force] station stuffed up on the paperwork and got caught. So that was two careers of people my age, who I knew, that were destroyed straight away, just by not being too careful about what they were doing. So, yeah, that does concentrate the mind.  If you’re dealing with, let’s say you’re in a major hazard facility, you’re in a chemical plant where you’ve got perhaps thousands of tonnes of dangerous chemicals, there are some very special risk controls, which you have to make sure are going to work most of the time.

And finally, there is ‘airworthiness’: decisions about whether we could fly an aeroplane, even though some bits of it were not working. So that was a decision that I got to make once I got signed off to do it. But it’s a team job. You talk to the specialists who say, this bit of the aeroplane isn’t working, but it doesn’t matter as long as you don’t do “that”.

Photo by Eric Bruton on Unsplash

So you have to make sure that the pilots knew, OK, this isn’t working.  This is the practical effect from your [operator’s] point of view. So you don’t switch this thing on or rely on this thing working because it isn’t going to work. There were various decisions about [airworthiness] that were an exciting part of the job, which I really enjoyed.  That’s when you had to understand what you were doing, not on your own, because there were people who’d been there a lot longer than me.  But we had to make things work as best we could – that was life.

Part 3 will follow next week!

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