In the fifth article in his series, David Jamieson looks at what we can learn from the movie Die Hard
“PLEASE remember, we have left nothing to chance,” said Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), lead antagonist in the festive movie classic, Die Hard. Stern words issued to the group he has taken hostage during the Nakatomi Corporation’s Christmas party.
In fact, when you think about it, the whole movie plays out as something of a metaphor for process safety: Gruber (“the chain of events leading to an incident”), and his bid to steal US$640m in negotiable bearer bonds from Nakatomi’s almost impenetrable vault (“the plant”), thwarted by off-duty cop John McClane (“process safety”) who, by a stroke of blind luck, was in the Nakatomi building and on hand to save the day.
In much the same way, it is sometimes the result of blind luck that a major accident or incident is prevented from occurring.
To ensure the success of their mission, Gruber and his goons had devised a way to defeat every potential barrier to access the vault; from cutting the phone lines to convincing the emergency services to ignore a fire alarm - triggered by McClane on the 32nd floor - and abort a rescue effort.
It is sometimes the result of blind luck that a major accident or incident is prevented from occurring
Gruber had also ascertained that the main service doors to the office building would likely not be locked, enabling their entry, and that the security guards on duty that evening were unlikely paying as much attention as they needed to be. Human factors anyone?
Meanwhile, for reasons that only the scriptwriters are aware, the final vault security measure would be disabled if the local power grid was shut down. Gruber knew that, by having his gang pose as terrorists and not thieves, the FBI would kill the power to the building, thus eliminating this final barrier to opening the safe.
And finally, to emergency response, with the Nakatomi Plaza cordoned off and surrounded by police, by detonating an explosion on the roof and making it appear as if they had perished, Gruber’s remaining assailants planned to escape in an ambulance, driving past the police cordons, to enjoy their new lives “on the beach earning 20%”.
Barriers can and – as history has shown us – do fail. In fact, many process safety incidents are the result of multiple barrier failures.
Barriers can and – as history has shown us – do fail. In fact, many process safety incidents are the result of multiple barrier failures
HAZOP is a key part of effective process safety management and helps us to understand what could cause an incident, how it could be prevented and if we have appropriate barriers in place. When done correctly, HAZOP attendees actively look for sources of harm and the different ways in which barriers might fail.
Gruber very much had this mindset; that the barriers put in place by Nakatomi Corporation could be overcome. When facilitating HAZOPs, I always encourage the team to adopt a similar attitude, asking themselves: “what more could we do?” or “how could that barrier be overcome?”. That’s because the never-going-to-happen chain of events may be more likely than you think.
Of course, as effective as they are, HAZOPs can also be incredibly time consuming and costly. That’s why the following considerations are key in preparing for, and conducting, a successful HAZOP:
In short, a full understanding of the barriers to a potential incident and what could cause them to fail is an essential part of effective process safety; something everyone, at all levels of an organisation, can play their part in. Why does this matter? Well, as Gruber says to his hostages, the decisions we make could mean the difference between “walking out or being carried out”. And everyone should expect to go home safely at the end of their working day.
This series explains key principles of engineering by applying them to scenes from various films. This is for the purpose of illustration for instruction only and does not arise from any endorsement by or association with any other person or entity.
To read more articles in this series visit https://www.thechemicalengineer.com/tags/pop-culture-safety
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