Researchers investigate written procedure use in high-risk industries

Experienced workers want less content and novice workers want more
January 2, 2018

Workers in high-risk industrial settings such as petrochemical and oil and gas operations routinely handle tasks that are complicated, and if not done properly, dangerous. In the 1980s, chemical disasters showed the need for procedures designed to keep people and the environment safe and prevent facilities from being damaged. Written procedures have served as a tool for reducing risks in these industries by giving workers guides for training, carrying out daily operations and handling emergencies. However, if these procedures are misunderstood, obsolete or ignored by workers, work processes can break down, leading to disaster. Previous studies have looked into procedure use in aviation and nuclear power, but not as much has been done in hazardous industrial working environments.

“While we know a bit about the design and use of procedures and checklists in industries such as aviation and medicine, very few systematic investigations have confirmed that the design of procedures in these industries translates to more industrial settings like petrochemical and oil and gas,” said S. Camille Peres, PhD, assistant professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

Peres along with researchers from Texas A&M’s College of Engineering, recently published a study as part of a large-scale effort to fill that research gap. In the study, published in the journal Process Safety and Environment Protection, Peres and colleagues analyzed data from interviews of 72 petrochemical workers in a variety of roles working in nine high-risk facilities around the world. Of interest were the ways written procedures are used in the industry and factors that affect their use.

Five different interviewers spoke to operators at refineries, drilling facilities, chemical plants and an electrical management facility in six different countries. Interviewers followed a semi-structured approach, using a list of questions to guide interviews that covered topics ranging from the experiences workers have had with procedures and how they understand and use them in their jobs, to problems with procedures and how they can be improved. After analysis and coding, the researchers then used data from the interviews to reach several conclusions about procedure use.

The coding process grouped interview responses into several abstract categories that reflect themes in the data. These categories covered procedure uses, changes in procedures, worker attitude toward procedures, effects of the workplace environment on procedure use and other reasons why workers deviate from them. The study found that workers generally have a positive view of written procedures, though they are more frequently used by new employees, and that worker experience plays a larger role in their use than how complex or critical a task is. More experienced workers often saw procedures as less important, although many still used them in cases where job security or fear of punishment were issues. How procedures affected task time and perceived task safety also played a role in their use. In addition, many workers expressed frustration with the reactive nature of procedure change, presence of outdated or unnecessary procedures and the lack of worker input when writing procedures.

“The results from the interviews explained a long-standing dilemma when creating procedures in these settings—experienced workers want less content and novice workers want more,” Peres said. “Many thought this was just a preference, but it appears that the two groups may have distinct needs.”

Other factors affecting procedure use that the researchers found were effects of the environment, problems with digital tools and language and usability issues. Wind and rain make it difficult to use written procedures on paper, and personal protective equipment such as gloves and goggles can make it harder for workers to read or handle documents. Technology has been proposed as a solution for these issues, but the misuse of handheld devices and the additional flood of information often associated with technology use also appear to hinder procedure use. Information overload can also happen when procedures are not formatted in a usable way, such as not highlighting vital information or using pictures and diagrams. Lastly, English is not a native language for some workers, which can be an obstacle to understanding procedures.

These results are consistent with previous work, though this study identified environmental effects, digital access and language issues, among several new factors affecting procedure use. These findings point to deficiencies in using the same format for many different procedures and highlight a need for future work focusing on how to best present procedures for tasks with varying frequency and familiarity. In addition, more research is needed to determine best practices for integrating handheld digital technology in procedure use. Lastly, work is in progress to examine the cultural and organizational factors behind procedure use with an eye on building recommendations that take context into account.

“These findings and the future work they inform promise better adherence to procedures in an industry where such risk-reducing tools are crucial,” Peres said.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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