Sunday, June 6, 2021

From the Archives - HAZOP Blues II: The Spawning


If you’ve been paying attention to albertnet, you’ll have seen my first “HAZOP Blues” tale, from my archives, four weeks ago. Despite popular demand, I am running the next installment, written about a week later (and circulated via email because this was before blogs were a thing).

In case you’re wondering, I left this job a few months after penning the below memoir. This was, consequently, the final installment. Like James Cameron, director of Piranha II: The Spawning, I went on to much better things.

HAZOP Blues II: the Spawning – September 22, 1995, 12:28 AM

Greetings from Pasadena.

Things are, if anything, worse now than they were last week, so if you enjoy only upbeat tidings, please forego this missive. But if you’re intrigued by the idea of a sequel that doesn’t cost $7.50, read on.

We’re way, way, way behind schedule on this HAZOP, so the general mood is panic. My boss underbid this job by an amazing amount. It’s tantamount to saying you could build a skyscraper in the San Francisco financial district for about $50,000, in three weeks. So he’s been very tense lately. Add to this, of course, a software problem. This time it isn’t a computer glitch, but operator error. Hang on tight, because the explanation is a bit complicated.

Just before I came down here, one of my colleagues showed me how to use this special HAZOP worksheet-building software, so that I could scribe this HAZOP without looking like an English major who isn’t an engineer. (Normally, the HAZOP leader records his own sessions, but this client wanted a dedicated scribe. Lacking one on staff, my boss pressed me into service.) This colleague warned me that my boss doesn’t quite understand the software, and invariably gets his columns screwed up. The program uses various user-defined columns in which you record various things: causes of problems; consequences; and, safeguards (one column each). Suppose your cause is “valve stuck.” You might have consequences like “higher tank pressure,” “possible line rupture,” and “backflow to vessel piping.” In the next column, you list the various safeguards. These safeguards can either mitigate the consequences (e.g., a relief valve to prevent higher tank pressure, or a vent system to prevent line rupture), or they can prevent the malfunction (e.g., alarm detects malfunctioning valve and alerts the operator). Thus you have two basic ways to set up the worksheet: safeguards either relate to causes, or to consequences.

Basically, you decide which way to set it up, and then you set up the software accordingly. Thereafter, the safeguards scroll appropriately, and you number them properly, and your worksheet is organized logically. The only requirement is, you must always enter data according to how you’ve configured the worksheet—once you’ve configured it, you’re committed and can’t change your data entry protocol. My boss, I’d been warned, sets it up one way, enters the data that way for a while, and then at some point wanders off course, forgets how he’d set it up, and starts entering the data the other way, so that when you look at the worksheet, it makes no sense.

Well, knowing of this problem, I was very careful when my boss and I set up the worksheet together. I asked him very specifically how he wanted his safeguards to scroll. He was emphatic about relating safeguards to consequences. He said he always did it that way. And for the first week of HAZOPing, he was true to his word and followed his format: I numbered the safeguards within each consequence (i.e., starting the numbering over for each new consequence) and everything worked fine. The problem began when, upon reconvening the study after the weekend, he evidently forgot how we’d been doing it.

Here’s how it played out: there I was, recording away, and he was having a bad morning knowing how screwed up this project is, deadline-wise, and he whispered angrily to me, “You’re not supposed to start the numbering over at each consequence. Number consecutively throughout each cause.” I whispered back that I was doing it exactly how we’d done it the week before. This he denied emphatically. I couldn’t argue further, so I obeyed. In short order, our columns were all fouled up. Then he snapped, “You’re screwing up the rows.” What could I do? I pushed on. As the worksheet got more and more bollixed, he got more and more irritated. Eventually one of the Colombian engineers said, “Why are you numbering the safeguards that way? That isn’t how we’ve been doing it.” My boss assured him that he was wrong. Now I really began to worry.

At the next break, while the HAZOP team was off scarfing doughnuts, I pulled up a worksheet from the first week and showed my boss how we’d been numbering. He told me I’d been doing it wrong all along. So then I pulled up the worksheet setup/option screen and showed him that we’d configured the worksheet to relate safeguards to consequences, and had correctly adhered to this standard for the first week. At this news, he bawled me out for screwing up the worksheet setup from the get-go, and bemoaned that now we couldn’t fix it—that I’d basically screwed up the whole project and set us up to fail. At this point I was becoming very annoyed—enough to go after his goat. I told him that he himself had very clearly specified the worksheet setup.

Now he was good and outraged. I mean, who was I, this utterly green, English-major kid scribing his very first HAZOP, after only learning the software a week ago, to tell him he was doing it wrong? Not only had he helped to develop the software—he’d practically invented the damn thing—he’d he’d been using it for many years, over the course of countless HAZOP’s. Did I mean to say he’d been doing it wrong his whole career!? “It’s a hideous thing to contemplate,” I said, “but that there’s what is.” Actually, I knew better than to actually say this. I just sat there, silent.

As if to finish me off, he commandeered the computer and said, “Look, I’ll pull up one of my own worksheets, any of them, to show you how I do it.” He pulled up a worksheet, and to my amusement, the columns were all screwed up. Furiously, he pulled up the setup/option screen, and sure enough, he’d set it up one way and scribed it the other. Now he was fairly livid. “Wait, that’s not a good example,” he steamed. He clicked over to his latest, greatest, most prestigious HAZOP, and said, “Okay, this is a good example. Look at this one: unless I’m totally fucked up....”

He pulled up the screen. I was relieved, but not surprised, to see that it was just as fouled up as the first one. I didn’t say anything: nothing needed to be said. A small silence ensued, during which I put 100% of my energy into not smirking. Then my boss said, quietly, “Well, I guess I’m totally fucked up.” Less than a minute later, his shock had given way to abject panic. He immediately began complaining about the incredible stress he was under, and all the staffing problems he had, and this whole HAZOP team breathing down his neck all the time, everybody talking at once, etc.

Once the panic/excuse phase was over, he segued seamlessly into a newer, more ferocious anger, lashing out at me with everything he had, like a cornered badger. He began making harsh accusations, finding fault with every aspect of my scribing. He began to blame my inefficiencies for the project being behind schedule (which is a joke, since most of the time I’m just sitting there, waiting for the team to come to a consensus so that I can type something).

Perhaps he eventually divined that my response was not guilt and shame, but mere incredulity, for he eventually began to temper his litany with expressions like “I’m not accusing you, I’m just sayin’,” and when he had determined conclusively that I wasn’t going to cower, accept blame, apologize profusely, and commit ritual suicide by self-disembowelment, he began to shift the blame to the rest of the HAZOP team instead. Finally he settled on a single scapegoat, Salim B—, the project manager, for whom I cannot formulate negative thoughts, largely (if perhaps unfairly) due to his benign demeanor and his pleasant resemblance to Frog from Frog and Toad Together, that wonderful picture book I enjoyed as a child.

By now the team was reassembling, and we continued the HAZOP. Notably, my boss continued to force my documentation astray, continued to demand that I force-feed the data into the worksheet in a manner counter to all logic. As if he hadn’t, mere moments before, come face to face with incontrovertible proof of his error, he continued to chase me down the errant path. Resigned to our doom, I gamely continued to mangle our innocent data, hoping that nobody would spot the inconsistencies and errors we were promulgating. Sure, my victory during the break should have been sweet—it’s not every day that you can sit back and watch while your arrogant boss makes a complete ass of himself—but it was a hollow victory indeed, for this wasn’t Me vs. Him, it was Us vs. Chaos, and we were now going down together. He’s the boss, so when he loses, I lose. (And he then wins somehow, because he’s a winner—got it?)

Perhaps the very worst part about the whole sordid affair is that when the day was finally over—eight grueling dog-hours behind us—my boss wanted me to be his pal, and go out on the town with him. We went to a restaurant; over great Thai food he attempted to find common ground with me by belittling every no-good, disloyal, stupid and immoral ex-employee we ever had (and there are a lot of them). I’m no slouch, either; I expertly tossed in detail after heinous detail about every one of them. I built up fabulous psychological profiles explaining the underlying nature of each one: “What S— lacked, essentially, was confidence. He couldn’t transcend his meager fire safety background and meet the challenge of holding his own among registered Professional Engineers and Certified Safety Professionals.” My boss—PE, CSP—nodded sagely in agreement.

I proceeded to spin elaborately sycophantic soliloquies: “I’ll never forget when you first saw the problem with S—, months before he left. You hit the nail on the head when you questioned his loyalty, way back in February. I think you knew his flaws even before they became obvious to the rest of us. It’s like you said, the cream rises to the top, and we’re better off without him.” My boss had never said these things—indeed, he had promoted S— only a month before—but that wasn’t about to stop him from savoring the memory of having totally nailed it. With great satisfaction, he dragged out his well-soiled cancer analogy, acidly lancing the tumors he had removed, and ordered us another round of beers. By the end of the meal, a dozen epitaphs later, I was beginning to feel sick.

Then we went out and shot pool, splitting (alas) a pitcher of beer. Our playing was absolutely abysmal; at one point, my boss managed to launch the cue ball off the table, where it rolled all the way into the bar. I, his obsequious little helper, shamelessly chased it down and retrieved it.

Now, we’re as chummy as ever; our worksheets, which continue to twist crazily on the page, are a taboo subject. More than ever before, HAZOP is a grind. Fortunately, I’ve developed a knack for recognizing, among the rambling discussions, the special lilt to an engineer’s voice (be his accent Indian, Colombian, French, British, or Turkish) that tells me he’s settled on an idea that should be recorded. Like never before, I swing to the music of valve numbers and failure modes. Between data inputs, while the team argues pedantically over the likelihood of a 2D low-low shutdown if the stage two crude discharge separator were to encounter a closed block valve at startup, I drift off into mental oblivion, fantasizing about being run over by a truck during lunch.


An alert reader wrote to ask me how much of this I made up. Rest assured, nothing here is fabricated ... the sad tale is 100% true and (as I wrote it while still in the thick of the action) it doesn’t even suffer from the natural erosion of memory.

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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