Time for a hazop review? 3 benefits of HAZOP software

Risk reviews and re-evaluations form a continuous cycle in risk management systems. How can software make the process of risk reviews more efficient?

New Year, new risk reviews?

With a new year comes new challenges, new opportunities… and new risk reviews. Here we’re talking about hazards and operability studies (HAZOPs), which are subject to risk review just like any other risk study.

This new year is an opportunity to make the most of advances in cloud-based risk software. More cloud-based software packages are available, along with more functionality and more analytical power. For safety practitioners who work with HAZOPs, it is worth considering HAZOP software alternatives to conventional spreadsheets and other simplistic tools.

But there are sound reasons for considering HAZOP software that relate to the way the human mind works. Here’s how.

The human brain has limited processing power

Collaborative risk workshops rely on the human brain to conceptualise, visualise and analyse risk factors. A HAZOP is fundamentally about processing information in this way to make good decisions.

Every HAZOP uses a collaborative “working memory” to keep track of the risk factors in play. This might be a whiteboard, an overhead projector, or a HAZOP software tool. These tools enable us to take ideas from hazard identification into a shared space in order to analyse them together.

The issue with analysing problems is that research (summarised here) seems to suggest that the human brain has limited working memory. Even if ideas are written down so we don’t forget them, the brain can only wrest with so many ideas at once. A complicated exercise like a HAZOP therefore tends to stretch the limits of our processing power.

To get the most out of this limited processing power, we need ideas to be easily accessible. This is where collaborative HAZOP software shines. Good software makes risk factors visually accessible, logically laid-out, and able to be rearranged and manipulated. Project the HAZOP using a data projector, and you have a shared working memory for everyone in the room.

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Conventional spreadsheets can be good for documenting the items from hazard identification exercises, but generally perform poorly at easily rearranging and manipulating data. Spreadsheets are designed to provide a static platform for data interaction, which isn’t really the way that human brainstorming works. Good HAZOP software is designed to be easily rearranged with multiple visual perspectives (and colour-coding).

Writing on a whiteboard works for simple exercises, such as a hazard identification list. Here we just need all items to be recorded. Interaction between items is not yet explored. Whiteboards have limited utility for more complex exercises like HAZOPs, where interaction between items is essential. Whiteboards also aren’t well-suited to rearranging and manipulating what is written on them.

To overcome the human brain’s limited processing power, or at least have a fighting chance, HAZOP software is your best bet.

The human brain learns best through tangible examples

Risk workshops are also intended to be a combined learning and decision-making exercise. A HAZOP should enable the team to make good decisions: but also involves visualising how risk factors interact, and learn which risk factors are the highest priority.

The issue here is that research seems to suggest that the human brain learns poorly from abstract or conceptual ideas. Humans visualise and retain ideas better if they are working with tangible ideas. HAZOPs are intended to study detailed, tangible scenarios and risk controls: but the tools you use will inevitably shape how tangible (and memorable) your analysis is.

HAZOP software can be a great way to steer your hazard identification toward tangible, concrete examples. The software provides structure to the exercise. That structure guides the user towards consideration of particular tangible factors as part of the exercise.

For example, someone in the HAZOP team suggests that hot working conditions are a fairly serious risk at the new operating site in remote areas. Are we likely to remember “hot working conditions in remote areas” as a risk factor? What if we instead talk about “average daytime temperatures above 35 degrees at the new mine site outside Kalgoorlie”?

The second example is more memorable and easier to visualise. Those of us who have worked in similar conditions can almost feel the heat from their memories. HAZOP software encourages this kind of visualisation by prompting certain fields to be completed. If hot working conditions are the hazard, what is the top event? Where does the loss of control occur? What causes or enabling factors make this event more likely? HAZOP software with guiding prompts steer you in the direction of more tangible, well-defined concepts. These are more easily processed by the brain and more likely to be retained in memory.

The knowledge of the past is valuable to the future

It has been said that mankind has not invented an original way to kill itself. While this may be more catchy than it is totally accurate, it makes a good point about the important role of history in shaping our anticipation of the future. All organisations should draw on corporate knowledge, because any such knowledge is obtained at a cost. This is all the more important in the field of risk where the stakes are often much higher.

It stands to reason that past HAZOPs would provide a sound basis for new hazard identification work. If we consider that humans have limited working memory, and work best with tangible examples, then it seems all the more logical to refer to past HAZOPs as a valuable resource. Past HAZOPs provide a complete dataset with tangible, worked examples. Better still, the assumptions and conclusions of past HAZOPs have been tested in the real-world, which provides a wealth of lessons learned.

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HAZOP software provides a platform for storing this kind of corporate knowledge on risk. If you use the same software over time, you’ll even have past work available in a directly comparable format. It’s in the nature of software to mould data into a standardised format, which increases the efficiency of storing and retrieving data. Software is particularly good at this because it can have prompts, pop-up notifications and other features that explicitly encourage the user to stick to the standardised approach. Some software packages have explanatory notes next to fields, others highlight incorrectly filled fields and display a notification.

Conventional spreadsheets are not ideal because they tend not to support this type of behaviour. The user has to have a good understanding of the spreadsheet rules (and a good understanding of how to use the spreadsheet software) in order to correctly enter data according to the standardised approach. Spreadsheets are also not inherently designed to map interactions between line items, which can make old work far from visually accessible.

To capture corporate knowledge for the future, and to use stored knowledge in the future, specialised software tends to excel above alternative methods.

Making the most of HAZOP opportunities

Every risk review, reval and HAZOP is a new opportunity to explore risk. Each one is an opportunity to reconsider the wisdom of past assumptions, to explore different scenarios that were previously overlooked, and to build on past learning.

Organisations that do not draw on their past corporate knowledge to inform their future are throwing away knowledge that was essentially purchased in man-hours (or through hard lessons from unwanted incidents). Organisations that do not take the opportunity to critically re-evaluate things as part of risk reviews are missing out on the chance to improve their risk management practice.

Software should only ever be a tool in the risk management system, not the whole of the system. It should support human behaviours and policies rather than driving them. But there are considerable benefits to using specialised HAZOP software to tackle risk studies.

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The new year, and the coming scheduled risk reviews, are an opportunity for your organisation to consider whether there are better tools to assist with risk practice. Entertain the idea of HAZOP software, or risk software more generally. There are plenty of cloud-based solutions that let you “pull” capabilities when you need them.

Using a subscription-based risk software package gives you the flexibility to work with new software without paying a hefty upfront product licence. If the software tools are not as useful as you thought, you’re not already invested with the cost of a product licence.

So next time you’re conducting a risk review or a HAZOP re-evaluation, consider: are you making the most of the human brain’s limited working memory? Are you honing in on tangible, detailed examples? Are you getting value from past risk work?

If you can’t confidently say yes to all three, it may be time to consider a different approach.

How do you see software fitting into your hazard identification and analysis? Is it essential or a nice-to-have in modern risk practice?

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