Safety-critical communication

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Safety-critical communication

Safety-critical communications
Safety-critical communication in the 10 Human and Organisational Factors

Spoken and written communication can be critical in maintaining safety. Safety-critical communication focuses on helping workers negotiate hazards in the workplace, reduce the likelihood of error and perform their jobs safely.

Worksites need to provide all personnel, including contractors and visitors, with access to the information they need to remain safe at work. There are various means, or systems, of communication that can be used in a workplace. These include:

  • toolbox talks
  • signage
  • radio protocols
  • information displays
  • hazard reporting processes
  • training information.

Importance of safety-critical communication

Communications can be vital in a wide range of safety-critical tasks and activities such as lifting operations, emergency response, entry to confined spaces, as well as coordination of activities between different parties. When communication failures occur, incidents including large-scale accidents are more likely to happen.

There are generally three types of communication failures - system, content and reception failures.

System failures

When appropriate means of communication are not in place, not in working order, not utilised or not utilised appropriately

Examples of system failures include:

  • the absence of a formal or effective process for shift handover to ensure the oncoming shift are fully aware of plant status and operational issues
  • an inadequate system to record plant information (e.g. log books) or failure to use record keeping systems
  • inadequate radio coverage of plant area or insufficient communications equipment available.
Content failures

When the means of communication exists, but the information that needs to be communicated is not communicated, or is communicated inaccurately

Examples of content failures include when:

  • lack of clarity leads to incorrect assumptions about required actions
  • inappropriate level of detail is provided (too much or too little)
  • assumptions are made about each person’s knowledge or availability of information
  • there is an inconsistency between tone or method of delivery of message and the nature of action required.
Reception failures

When the means of communication exists and the necessary information is delivered; however, it is not received on time or is misunderstood, misinterpreted or disregarded

Examples of reception failures include when:

  • intended recipients don't receive the message
  • radio communication is done in noisy plant areas
  • hand written messages are illegible
  • voice messages are not listened to in full
  • volume of messages is excessive or inadequate e.g. alarm messages on plant control systems during start up, shutdown or emergency conditions.

Safety-critical tasks

Effective communication is particularly important when it relates to safety-critical tasks as it reduces the likelihood of human error. For this reason, specific focus areas should include the start of shift or shift handover process and the permit to work process.

Poor communication, especially at shift handover, was identified as a key contributor to a number of major accidents, including incidents at Piper Alpha, Grangemouth, Texas City and Buncefield.

Shift handover communication

For an effective start of shift or shift handover that reduces the likelihood of an incident arising during the shift, consider:

  • providing procedures describing key information that needs to be exchanged, the method for doing so and order of priority
  • allowing sufficient time for handovers to remove time pressure and other distractions
  • developing procedures for information sharing during higher risk handovers:
    • during shutdowns, unusual operating conditions and emergency breakdowns
    • during work which involves complex permits and/or isolations
    • when people have had extended absences from the worksite
    • when there are inexperienced workers on the job
    • when there is handover between experienced and inexperienced workers
  • worker competency in effective implementation of handover procedures
  • regular auditing of the quality and effectiveness of the handover process, including consulting with the workforce on their experience of shift handover communication
  • where possible, planning handovers so they are completed face-to-face and allow for crews to openly discuss issues to reduce the possibility of misunderstandings
  • allow for two-way communication during shift handover; that is, in addition to providing information to workers, encourage questions and feedback from workers
  • the effectiveness of shift handover communication during any incident investigations and make alterations where necessary
  • checking that the content of handover communication is relevant, so as not to obscure the information with irrelevant detail
  • reducing environmental interference such as noise and insufficient lighting.

Communication considerations for permits and isolations

Permit systems are one of the most critical safety procedures in industry and play an important role in preventing injuries and incidents.

What is the purpose of permit procedures?

Permit to work procedures (systems) provide a safe framework for work to take place by ensuring that hazards are identified and controlled. For example, adequate isolation of hazardous energy sources, provision of fire extinguishers and decontamination. Permits to work are required for different types of activities in normal operations, construction and maintenance. For example, excavation, confined space entry and hot works.

Operations: Permit to work and isolation procedures enable the operations teams to identify hazards, implement the required controls, and effectively isolate and prepare the correct equipment in a timely manner to enable servicing, maintenance and repair tasks to be safely performed.

Maintenance: Effective communication during maintenance requires all parties involved in the work to be included in the information sharing. This includes representatives from all work fronts and interfaces whether that is operations or maintenance. In particular, make sure that there is clear agreement whether an item of equipment is available for operation or under maintenance. It is vital that operations and maintenance personnel are clear at all times on the status of equipment which is being maintained or has undergone maintenance.

Who is the owner?

The term “owner” is used to define the department, team or person that is in charge or control of an item of equipment, system or plant. The owner has the authority to authorise an individual or work team to operate the equipment and/or perform maintenance work on the equipment or within the work area(s) they are accountable for. Having an owner assists with effective communication. Establishing who the “owner” at any point in time is critical to prevent the accidental operation of equipment under maintenance and the maintenance of equipment which is still operational (or capable of being operated).

There are a range of methods that can be used to communicate who the “owner” is, including:

  • identifying “on shift” personnel and their area of accountability on plant or equipment status boards in control rooms
  • requiring all non-process personnel to report to a control room to obtain approval prior to entering the plant
  • a permit to work procedure or system which formally transfers “ownership” and control of plant or equipment to enable a defined scope of work to be performed
  • appointing permit coordinators who are responsible for issuing permits to work authorising performance of work on plant and equipment
  • a procedure for the management or transfer of permits during shift handover (workers will need to be trained and deemed competent in this process).

There is a tendency for permit to work procedures, systems and forms to become complex as they mature and it is important that personnel working with the system are adequately trained (and periodically retrained) in the requirements to ensure they remain competent. Similarly, permit to work procedures that have been adjusted and become more complex over time, should be reviewed for effectiveness and useability.

Without regular review, it is likely that degradation of the permit and isolation system will only be identified when an incident occurs.

How can communication be improved?

Both the content and accessibility of information needs to be considered when evaluating communication requirements and efficacy. When aiming to improve communication, you should:

  • choose the best communication method. For example, safety messages or critical task details should be provided face-to-face (e.g. toolbox talks) rather than by email or a paper notice
  • provide additional controls when face-to-face communication is not possible to make sure that the message is received and understood correctly
  • ensure that preferred communication methods are easy and accessible
  • not overload workers with unnecessary information that detracts from the key message
  • check that the information reaches everyone it needs to. Consider how you will manage shift handover, contractors, mobile or remote crews and teams with high turnover
  • make sure workers have access to good quality and operational communication equipment
  • implement procedures or systems (e.g. log books) to support workers in recording and communicating key information
  • train workers in the communication methods used by your organisation (e.g. terminology, hand signals, location of phones and radios)
  • ensure that there are no negative consequences of communicating in an appropriate manner
  • demonstrate that management is available to listen to workers through an ‘open door’ policy or ‘town hall’ meetings
  • stay current with emerging technology and alternate communication methods that may benefit your organisation.


Why are communication and consultation important to safety and health?

This webpage by DMIRS discusses what effective communication and consultation are, and describes their role in improving workplace safety and health outcomes.

How can consultation be improved?

This webpage by DMIRS provides information and resources to help make the workplace consultation process more effective and efficient.