How a bow tie can help fight COVID-19

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Mark Scanlon, Head of Health and Safety at the Energy Institute

Mark Scanlon, Head of Health and Safety at the Energy Institute, explains why a risk management methodology more commonly applied on oil and gas platforms can help make sense of the global pandemic and the efforts to stop it.

As I write, more than 30,000 people have now died from the new coronavirus disease. Well over 600,000 are believed to have been infected. The speed of its spread, to more than 170 countries in less than three months, has been astonishing.

Each individual death is a tragedy, but the pandemic is still unfolding and it seems likely to get worse before it gets better, at least in certain parts of the world.

Fortunately, the disease has its weaknesses, and governments around the world are taking unprecedented steps to exploit those to try to protect citizens from further harm.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of us all following the advice to the letter and observing the restrictions that have been put in place.

Rarely has personal responsibility been so important to collective wellbeing. As we hear repeatedly from ministers and senior health officials, we need to beat this together. Only by heeding the advice to stay at home, to wash our hands and to self-isolate, can we help to save our own lives and the lives of those around us.

But what exactly does each of these measures aim to achieve, and how do they work in concert?

Many people respond even better to advice when they understand precisely why it’s being given. That’s something we know from our work in process safety and human factors in the energy sector, whether it’s in hazardous environments offshore, handling chemicals or working at height or with heavy loads.

And a highly effective methodology used to manage risks in those environments is ‘bow tie’, so-called because it uses a diagram that resembles, well, a bow tie!

Knowledge and experience of its application have been consolidated by experts at the Energy Institute and our partner organisation the Center for Chemical Process Safety and published in September 2018 as a technical resource for the industry.

Bow tie is a visual aid that identifies threats (represented as the left-hand bow of the tie) that could potentially cause a hazard (the knot) and, further, the consequences (the right-hand bow) that could result. In between are barriers aimed at avoiding the hazard becoming a reality, or mitigating its consequences. However, the strength of these barriers can be reinforced or undermined by degradation factors.

This might all strike you as rather obvious, but I like the bow tie methodology for its simplicity, and we know it helps save lives on oil platforms, at petroleum refineries and on offshore wind farms.

COVID-19 differs from conventional workplace hazards that are represented in bow ties, like the processing of hydrocarbons containing hydrogen sulfide or working at height, but applying the same approach is incredibly powerful.

Take a look at the EI/CCPS Bow Tie for COVID-19 (9 April revision), which unpacks precisely how we are all working together to break the chain of causality between exposure, infection and death. What becomes clear is that there are only a few real barriers on the left- and right-hand sides of the bow tie. We must each play our part in applying them as stringently as possible.

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