This website uses non-intrusive cookies to improve your user experience. You can visit our cookie privacy page for more information.

Engineering for Safety and Sustainable Operation, University of Strathclyde - 17 March 2015

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

An engineer's role beyond the design stage

Good evening and thank you very much for inviting me to speak at the Faculty of Engineering here at the University of Strathclyde. It gives me great pleasure to talk about engineering issues, having spent most of my career as an engineer in Major Hazard Industries. That time also gave me a real appreciation of how important process safety is. And now as Chair of the Health and Safety Executive I get to see process safety and engineering issues from the perspective of the regulator. 

What, why and who

Much of what I will talk about this evening will be based on the work of HSE’s Chemicals, Explosives and Major Hazards Division and our Energy Division. I will provide a brief description of some of the work programmes which are underway in these divisions, an insight into some of our findings and some observations on what this means in terms of challenges for industry.

I will also tell you about the important roles which mechanical engineers play in HSE. They are central to much of the work in our Hazardous Installations Directorate.

And it’s worth saying that the work within HSE that I am highlighting is an important facet of a well-engineered organisation. HSE celebrated 40 years of operation in January, and I say celebrated from the perspective of Great Britain having one of the best health and safety records in the world, and a health and safety system that others wish to learn from and emulate.

This is brought about through the far-sighted architecture of the Health and Safety at Work Act, with the principal that those who create risk must also manage the risk, the regulatory framework the Act has allowed and the regulator it created. HSE and its various experts and specialists combine with its agency the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) to give us a unique capability. HSL provides forensic expertise in the investigation of incidents, often crucial to bringing successful enforcement action. But that knowledge also enables the whole organisation to learn and feed into the development of new policies and revised regulations. And HSE has specialists in many disciplines, the focus this evening being on the engineers, both those required by HSE and by industry to deal with the management of ageing plant in process safety environments.

It may not surprise you when I say that both onshore and offshore, we are seeing a general shortage of good integrity management engineers in the industries we regulate. For this part of my presentation - which will be much less about technical issues and much more about how we inspire and encourage new and recent graduates to come into the industry and work with us on addressing these challenges - I will draw on my own knowledge from IChemE and from some recent work I have been involved in with the Royal Academy of Engineering. One of the greatest challenges for us as engineers is to find much better ways of telling the story to others – to make what we do come alive and inspire others to follow. When Perkins and others tell us that there is a shortage of engineers in the UK, that isn’t just a problem for the future – but in the here and now. Whilst the main focus of this talk tonight is ultimately on preventing leakage from physical pipelines (and other vessels), we must also address the serious issue of leakage from the talent pipeline – but more of that later.

Plant Ageing onshore

But let’s start with Plant Ageing and look first of all at how this fits in HSE within the work of the Chemicals, Explosives and Microbiological Hazards Division. Research carried out for HSE during 2008-2010 clearly identified ageing infrastructure and equipment as key contributors to incidents at onshore major hazards sites. As a result of these findings, the subject has become a strategic priority for the COMAH Competent Authority.

It goes without saying, I hope, that asset integrity management already formed a part of our intervention strategy at major hazard sites. So it was important for us to develop an approach which ensured that previous work on integrity management was not lost or ignored. However, we did need to ensure that it was integrated into the day-to-day work of the mechanical engineering team. Our revised approach began in 2010 with three clearly stated aims:

Over the four years that this strategic programme has been running we have identified some key issues but also made progress on addressing those issues.

The key finding which sticks out for me is that 70% of all sites we have looked at need to improve in at least one area of ageing management.

Plant Ageing onshore (2)

Senior managers as well as engineers have a vital role to play in focusing effort and resources into integrity management and ageing plant.
They need to:

So, to be clear, I am telling you that, from our current sample of over 400 sites which we have visited, 70% are failing to match up to at least one and in some cases more than one of these key principles.  Extrapolated for all of the 950 sites in GB that would mean around 650 are failing to match up.

Plant Ageing onshore (3)

One particular issue which we have identified is that onshore sites that use third parties to provide ageing plant management services (particularly plant inspections) are delivering significantly poorer performance when it comes to management of plant ageing.

Third party services are frequently contracted through a site’s insurance company or broker. This has long been standard practice in many places for the statutory inspection of air and steam generating pressure vessels as you will know only too well. Over time, this service has been extended to cover other aspects of inspection. Not a problem per se provided that the service provider is competent to do the extended work scope – which is not always the case. There are distinct differences, greater levels of expertise and access to more information required by those who are engaged to carry out detailed plant integrity inspections and go beyond what is required for inspection of generic equipment.

Failure to recognise the different competences required for integrity management are a frequent cause of inadequate arrangements being put in place. Integrity management inspectors must have access to and be able to interpret details of specific process conditions and environment for each item of plant in detail. Almost inevitably, such a service is going to cost more and may even require different third parties to be contacted to do the work. This means that the client must be an intelligent customer who can:

Simply ticking a box to say that an inspection has been done is by no means enough.

Much of what I have said here on what is required is now documented in guidance with the good practice guidance on managing integrity of high hazard plant published in conjunction with EEMUA and SAFEd. We are also currently working with the Chemical and Downstream Oil Industry Forum (CDOIF) to produce further guidance on making effective use of third parties.

Consequences of getting it wrong

But what are the practical consequences of not getting process safety right?
Unfortunately there are many examples to choose from over the years, but let’s take a look at a recent example.

If the video works you will see what happened, but here is some background to it in any case. [RUN VIDEO]

The Chevron Richmond Refinery, about 10 miles North East of San Francisco, was established in 1902. Processing 250,000 barrels of transportation fuels per day, the part of the facility where the problem was to occur included pipework carrying light gas oil at around 330 degrees Celsius.

Chevron inspectors knew that the pipework, fitted in 1976, was corroding but not how much. The pipe was coated with insulation, meaning visual checks couldn’t be made and although full inspection of all pipework at the plant had been recommended by Chevron itself, it had not been carried out. This was one of the pipes that had not been fully inspected.

On August 6 2012, an operator noticed a puddle below the pipe. There was no way to isolate the leak without shutting down production and the head operator decided not to do so. A team of managers, engineers and technicians gathered to discuss the problem. An operator recommended to them that the unit be shut down while the leak was addressed. Instead they decided to try to locate and patch the leak whilst maintaining production. This would require removal of the pipe’s insulation whilst still at operating temperature. The ad-hoc methods used to try to remove the insulation in these conditions ended up moving the pipe and also, it is thought, further punctured the fragile corroded pipework that was hidden from view.

Following an initial release and small fire, which was quickly extinguished, a decision was made to make an emergency shutdown. But by this point it was too late.

A huge dense release meant the workers in the area had to crawl out unsighted. One firefighter is thought only to have survived because he had full breathing apparatus on.

Indeed it is amazing that no-one died in the incident. Hours of fire led to a dense plume of black smoke drifting across the local area. And over 15,000 nearby residents sought medical advice for breathing problems and other symptoms.

So, we can see from this example that poor long term leadership of health and safety – caused a problem – an engineering issue in this case - to develop undetected over time. And if the health and safety culture from the leaders at the top was shown to fall short, we shouldn’t be surprised that the necessarily quick short term decisions made by staff below them once the leak was detected also fell short - with too little awareness of the potential dangers and too much priority given to continuing production.  Thus an accident waiting to happen became an actual full scale incident.

Plant Ageing - the offshore story

Let me move on now to talk about the management of ageing plant in our Energy Division – predominately related to Offshore oil and gas facilities.

After 40+ years of oil and gas production and with >50 per cent of fixed platforms having exceeded their original design life, asset integrity is a major priority and will continue to be so. With the use of enhanced oil recovery, the potential for platforms to be pressed into different services and the continued reliance on oil and gas (in particular) as GB’s major source of energy, these facilities are all likely to remain in production for the foreseeable future.

This is not a new problem. The offshore industry should have learned from experience the dangers of making assumptions about the likely life span of facilities. Low oil prices before the turn of the millennium led to assumptions that facilities would be quickly decommissioned and which some 15-20 years later are still operating. You as mechanical engineers will know that maintaining integrity of any asset is a different task from rebuilding integrity after it has been allowed to decline.  We are in another period of low oil prices and  it is essential that we see industry respond appropriately to the current economic situation, not make the same mistakes it made in the 90s and  undo all of the goo d progress which has been made since then.

This raises an interesting aside about when you should start to think about management of plant ageing. Ageing is not simply about how old equipment is, it is about its condition and how that is changing over time. Ageing is a phenomenon that begins the moment equipment enters service and must be monitored and managed throughout the life of the facility.

From the day the plant is commissioned it will be subject to change and to challenge:

Even more so than with us humans, premature ageing of facilities needs to be avoided by taking care of the assets from day one!

But back to HSE’s work offshore.

Plant Ageing - offshore (2)

Early in the new millennium, HSE’s Offshore Division (as it was known then) found substantial shortcomings in integrity management as a result of cost cutting and maintenance backlogs. The net result of this was an associated increase in the number of significant hydrocarbon releases. Our response to this concern was to undertake a programme of work (Key Programme 3) on asset integrity in the period 2004-2007, in particular looking at the risk of failure of safety Critical Elements associated with structure, plant, equipment and systems.

As you may be aware, the KP3 report revealed significant issues on the maintenance of safety critical systems on offshore installations. The report was made public and the findings were acknowledged by industry. KP3 has raised serious issues and in 2008, the then secretary of State for Work and Pensions commissioned a further review. That review found that industry had allocated considerable resource and effort to improve offshore assets and compliance with relevant standards, and a good start had been made on “catching up”.

Plant Ageing - offshore (3)

But this was never going to be a short-term fix. The considerable effort which had gone into catching up had to be maintained and sustained. With this in mind, HSE launched Key Programme 4 on Ageing and Life Extension in 2010. KP4 has been looking at how dutyholders are planning to deal with asset integrity management in offshore process plant and structures for the long term. It has comprised targeted inspections of major hazard plant to assess the conditions by sampling and a review of the technical and management measures which are in place.

KP4 completed last autumn and made a number of important recommendations to industry:

KP4 has also identified some further recommendations for us to follow up on in HSE:

The broader landscape

As with the onshore industry, trade bodies, in this case Oil and Gas UK are continuing their work on developing ALE guidelines for industry across a range of subjects. HSE ED is participating members of the steering group.
If there is anything surprising in all of this, it is that we have to keep reminding people that  this is not just about doing this because we, the regulator see the need. Good long-term safety management, dealing with the potential for failure before the failure occurs is about improving business reliability and profitability.  We strongly believe that there is a much greater role for Reliability Engineers to be involved in ALE work. In fact the challenge is to get everyone in the business to see that asset management and preservation is fundamental to business success not something to be done for good old “elf n safety”! This gets to the heart of the issue. If the motivation for doing the right thing on asset integrity, ageing and life extension is because the regulator is “forcing the pace”, that motivation is wrong. Businesses need to see and believe that maintaining and protecting assets is part of running the business, performance is measured in terms of reliability and production levels – managing and running old assets is a challenge but it ought to be a truly motivating one.

All industrial infrastructure is continually ageing and it is simply not possible for all engineers to be employed in running shiny new kit. In my 30+ years in industry – I never once ran a brand new plant – I commissioned changes and improvements to some parts, yes, but I always worked on plants that were at least 20 years old and often more than that. I don’t think things have changed very much in that respect – there continues to be pressure on everywhere to keep plant running for as long as possible – and why not? It is a tribute to the quality of our predecessor engineers – and indeed some of us here in this room who designed and built these high quality facilities which have the capability to run well beyond their design life.

It is rarely the design capabilities of the plant which are found wanting, but the care and attention that has been given to the facilities during its operating life that creates the challenges in ageing and life extension. Managers and finance directors who use simple measures of performance to drive down operating costs  and who compare costs across all plants regardless of age place pressure on engineers who may know, for example, that there is a real need to tackle corrosion under insulation on older facilities, as the case study before vividly demonstrated. This short sighted approach leads to much higher costs in the long term – even if there is no leak or loss of containment – as the problem will be much more costly to fix the longer it is left – literally – under wraps.

Some of the contributing factors

In many parts of industry this has been exacerbated by a shortage of in-house skills to carry out the work and some of the added risks that come with outsourcing to third parties – such as access to and retention of inspection records – let alone my earlier comments about the adequacy/ appropriateness of third party inspection regimes.

One can add to this list changes in asset ownership which further challenge an organisation’s ability to maintain good records of inspections, refer to original design calculations and drawings and which may lead to major changes in management philosophy.


This is where leadership of health and safety is vitally important – it’s the job of those right at the top, from the Chief Executive, board members and directors, to ask the right questions about health and safety and put themselves in a position to make informed decisions – especially important during the current turbulence from oil price changes. And engineers working on critical plant, at all stages in its life from design through to maintenance and decommissioning, need to have confidence and clear communication with non-engineers in management to ensure their concerns and requirements are known and met in order to ensure safe operation is not unwittingly prevented.

I mentioned earlier that all engineers cannot reasonably expect to be working with shiny new kit, but that is different from acknowledging that a lot will be attracted to do so in other parts of the world where investment levels are several orders of magnitude higher than here in the UK and salary packages are also very tempting. Even here in the UK we can see the salary gaps which exist between onshore chemicals and petrochemicals roles compared with similar roles offshore. Living and working offshore will not be attractive to everyone but the packages on offer to attract people in times of shortage are significant.

This is indeed an issue for us in HSE.

Engineers in HSE

I highlighted a few moments ago why engineers in industry must confidently and clearly communicate their needs within their organisation.  And in HSE we also need to employ competent chartered engineers who are confident and able to challenge their peers in industry to ensure that regulatory requirements are being met.

I often speak about the strengths and benefits of our goal setting regulatory regime, but we must not forget what such a regime demands of our inspectors. This is not about checking for compliance but expecting people to use their professional judgment and being prepared to have that judgment challenged by  both dutyholders and ultimately in the courts. They must take personal responsibility for the regulatory decisions they make and the advice that they give. It is part of their role to probe dutyholders’ systems and explanations and seek out weaknesses where they exist, to advise on how to improve and to take enforcement action where this is necessary.

Our front line inspectors are supported by deep topic specialists in both Bootle and in our Health and Safety Laboratory in Buxton. We have experts in metallurgy, stress analysis, fracture mechanics, ergonomics and forensic investigation. As well as providing that expertise to support the work of our frontline inspectors our experts are also called on to provide sound engineering advice to  HSE Senior management on policy making and to other government departments, sometimes on issues of national importance. To give you a feel for this, some of the current topics on our list include:

Engineers in industry

For those of you who work in industry, your role in ageing management is also very important and is far from being just about  the technical aspects. Your role is about:

The opportunities?

I hope you can see from what I have spoken about so far that as well as a multitude of interesting challenges for engineers, there are opportunities.

For the mechanical engineers here this evening working in industry, the opportunity is to raise your own profile and increase the recognition of the value you bring to the organisation – asset integrity and ageing management is becoming recognised as important issues by many senior boards – they know that they need your help – you have the opportunity to become part of the solution not the problem person who is always pointing out what could go wrong.

Your professional institution needs to support you in putting the key messages together not only for your current membership but also for students and would-be engineers of the future. It is clear to me that young people today are looking more seriously at careers in industry – via either the university route or a revived interest in apprenticeships. But it is also well recognised that there are still simply not enough people studying engineering to meet the current and future needs of industry.

Despite the need for more engineers being widely publicised, we are still not seeing the sort of increase in applications to study engineering that we need. There are, of course, some exceptions to that. In my own discipline of Chemical Engineering, over the last decade or so we have seen the number of people applying for and being accepted onto Chemical Engineering courses more than double. As I speak today, every chemical engineering course in the country is full, with several other universities in the process of establishing Chem Eng courses to meet demand. It is particularly encouraging to see the increase in the proportion of women applicants.

A significant part of the success in attracting more applicants to chemical engineering has been IChemE’s Whynotchemeng campaign. It came about in response to a crisis when the number of applicants dropped to an all time low around the turn of the millennium. The institution recognised the need to make the subject more appealing by doing a much better job of explaining what chemical engineers actually do and describing the wide variety of career opportunities for graduates. The change of language and approach has worked. IChemE’s next challenge is to apply similar principles to encouraging graduates to stay in engineering post graduation – there are still far too many engineering graduates who go straight into non-engineering jobs straight out of university and to all intents and purposes are lost to the profession forever.  This is the issue of leakage from the talent pipeline which I referred to earlier. There is a lesson here which we all need to heed and act upon.

There are skills shortages wherever we look throughout the engineering profession. We need to talk differently about what we do and what we all get out of the jobs we do. I have said many times that engineers are great at talking to one another – we have a common language – but we are pretty rubbish at talking to others and explaining what we do. I am very conscious of the fact that this talk I have given here tonight is very much aimed at an audience of engineers. If I were to give this talk to a different audience, how would I explain the subject matter?

The opportunities

I would probably start by talking about our essential role in saving lives, protecting the environment and preventing catastrophic incidents. I would talk about our long heritage of some of the best engineering in the world which has contributed to the quality of life and benefits which we all take for granted. I would talk about the economic and social importance of us continuing to operate the fine facilities we have in place which provide us all with energy, fuel, clean water, health care and consumer products. I would speak with pride about being an engineer in the hope of inspiring others to follow a similar path.

The opportunities (continued)

We don’t do nearly enough of that. We often complain that we as engineers are not valued – but it’s partly our own fault because we don’t do a good job of explaining our role and our value to the world. Institutions like the Faculty of Engineering here at Strathclyde  are important for bringing like-minded people together – academia, engineers and the businesses that their skills allow to operate and thrive. But there is also a great opportunity which we all need to seize if we are to meet the many challenges out there in the world of engineering. Explaining what we do – using a different non technical language - to our peers, our bosses, stakeholders and to future engineers – will help to ensure that we have the resources we need for the future. Many of those ageing plants we have been talking about tonight will continue to operate long after we have all retired – we need to hand down our knowledge and those assets to future generations.

Thank you

Thank you for listening.

Updated 2015-08-17