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It will come as no surprise to hear that the working world is facing an enormous number of challenges due to COVID19, not least because of the need for social distancing and remote working. With the recent lockdown extension and no clear end date in sight, now more than ever businesses are facing tough decisions on resourcing and prioritisation of tasks to maintain output and minimise disruptions to their operations.

The challenge is even greater for those in the hazardous process industries where the requirement to comply with modern risk-based process safety legislation calls for added scrutiny. Studies such as HAZID, HAZOP, LOPA, HRA and QRA are not just needed to inform new designs during periods of high investment, they may also be necessary to allow decisions to be made on changes to plant and equipment, processes and the organisation itself.

HAZOP is perhaps the most widely used method to identify hazards and operational problems, with a broad application across many sectors of industry. It questions the design intent by applying simple guidewords (e.g., no, less, more, reverse) to process parameters (e.g. pressure, flow, temperature etc.) in a structured and systematic manner. It’s a team-based activity that requires input from subject matter experts and plant personnel to ensure that potential deviations are fully understood. But team-based studies such as these present some obvious challenges during lockdown.

Working remotely makes it more difficult to collectively review key process safety documents such as P&IDs, layout drawings, plot plans, materials safety data sheets, control philosophies and critical procedures, if the necessary platforms and infrastructure are not available.  It also requires expert facilitation skills to ensure that ideas and concerns do not go unnoticed when there is such a high reliance on verbal communication. Even so, sites are necessarily turning to remote studies as a short-term fix, in the absence of alternatives. So, what are the pros and cons of working remotely and could this way of working be an indication of the future of Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment Studies?

For some, the term HAZOP conjures up thoughts of a tedious process focussed on detail; for others it’s a rigorous systematic process that stimulates thought, challenges ideas and makes a real difference to safe operation and maintenance, not a box ticking exercise.

When commissioning a HAZOP study, there are several key factors to consider, which include:

  • Team dynamics
  • Timescales
  • Ability to get the right people together at the same time
  • Costs

Whilst it’s clear that performing studies remotely can have some adverse effects when compared with face to face studies, it is important not to treat this as a binary choice since there are benefits to be gained from both ways of working. Instead we should look to intelligently select the best option for a given situation.


Team dynamics

Most HAZOP leaders would testify that the ability to understand team dynamics and “manage the room” is almost as important as the technique itself – observing reactions, detecting disagreement, and nurturing discussions are key to the facilitation process. We have all been there when we have needed to interject to halt side conversations and dissuade those attending from re-designing the plant or process. However, from our experience, managing such aspects remotely has proved to be surprisingly simple, setting aside pre-conceptions. In contrast, some surprising benefits were observed, including:

  • Technology effectively restricts others from talking over people with much more pausing to allow others to speak.
  • Side conversations were either not conducted or were muted in a manner which did not disrupt the group.
  • No ability for people to attempt to modify the P&ID or sketch in proposed new designs.
  • Information sharing was rapid and in real time. Screen sharing allowed for change of control to allow participants to show documents and communicate concepts easily.


While we cannot truly know that everyone is fully engaged, the use of skilful questioning, allowing long uncomfortable pauses and offering up more frequent breaks are useful in reducing the effects of this.

Maintaining team dynamic during a remote HAZOP is closely linked to the reliability of technology. Losing connection part way through, especially if this occurs several times, can cause frustration and lose the teams flow. To overcome such aspects, we have found the following useful:

  • Use a standard conference dial in for audio – this allows participants to talk and resolve problems if connectivity is lost.
  • Encourage participants to ensure all scheduled computer updates have been performed before the study or delayed until afterwards.
  • Although obvious – test runs beforehand.


Access to people, costs and timescales

We often struggle trying to align all relevant parties within a single room to conduct a HAZOP, with the added complication of getting relevant people from SHEQ, Operations, Engineering, Maintenance and subject matter experts all together at the same time. And when we do manage this task, many best laid plans are ruined by last-minute problems or urgent tasks.

From this perspective, remote studies offer undoubted benefits brought about by almost unlimited flexibility. Rather than attempting to fill the day with a HAZOP for deemed efficiency or cost reasons, studies can be performed in bite sized chunks, and hence be potentially more productive. Casual observers or those who want to experience the HAZOP for personal development reasons can dial in without affecting the whole group, while incredibly busy people can be available remotely so that they can contribute where necessary. Should a HAZOP require the expertise of a third-party supplier of a packaged supply based in Switzerland there would normally be a need to fly them in.  However, this is not a problem remotely, where they can be fitted seamlessly into the proceedings of the day, when required.

All of the above benefits provide access to the right people, more quickly and in a manner which removes the costs associated with travel, expenses and delays of projects, as studies are pushed back to accommodate calendars. One area of concern would be the potential to omit plant operators or maintenance staff from remote studies and it is essential that HAZOP leaders ensure that no such failings occur.

There are still some potential negative effects which require understanding and managing so that the most can be made of remote studies. There would be valid concerns about whether progress within the study would offset any time or economic benefits obtained. Experience would suggest this is not the case and studies have appeared to have progressed effectively on a node / line per day basis. As further experience is gained, it is worthwhile assessing such productivity to look for trends regarding which types of studies progress efficiently or otherwise.

As a final thought on the issue of face to face versus remote HAZOP / LOPA studies, it is important to not think of the options as a simplistic yes / no or better / worse. Remote studies lose a little in personal interaction however gain much in efficiencies and flexibility. The impact of future studies is, therefore, likely to be a blend of the two options rather than a choice between them. Shorter or more simple studies would be easily achievable remotely and in a more cost-effective fashion. Larger or more complex studies might be better suited to face to face meetings, or alternatively a split approach dependent upon the nodes.

Either way, in a post COVID world, remote studies are likely to play a part in process safety risk assessment.