Richard Roff

Human decisions and system performance event Chair and Group Process Safety Director at Costain

We’re thrilled to have you chair our Human decisions and system performance event in December, what are you most looking forward to during the evening?

I’m looking forward to hearing some real experts in their fields; to meeting some people in person who are interested in how human decision-making can affect system performance in good ways and bad. And finally to make connections with people through this in-person event.

We know Costain are a member of the Hazards Forum and we’d like to know more about your professional life. Please can you give some background of your current role?

I’m Group Process Safety Director for Costain, I help the business to focus on catastrophic incident prevention across all of our sectors which cover engineering design and construction for such things as process plant (for energy, nuclear and water) and for transport systems like railways, aviation and highways.  I am a Chartered Mechanical Engineer and a Professional Process Safety Engineer.  I spent my early career in the chemical industry and some years in steelmaking before joining Costain about 10 years ago.

During your career, in what capacity has yourdecision making affected the performance of systems youwork with?

Earlier in my career I was responsible for plant integrity in high-hazard chemical manufacture.  There were frequent decision to be made over maintenance, repairs, modification proposals, inspection responses and so on.  Most of those gave time for consultation with others or written sources, but, in 24-hour operations, there were plenty of call-outs requiring decisions on safe shutdown or responses to equipment failures that were more time-pressed.

What risks do you foresee as engineered systems become more complex? Will the need to intervene decrease?

Failures will be more predictable in general but less predictable in detail – will the system fail in some way?  Yes, but how it will fail or where the break-down will eventually be obvious may be more difficult to predict. It may be that interventions from humans are less frequent but that presents a problem of those humans being less familiar with how to intervene or what the nature of the issue is.  It is possible that simulators will become cheaper to create and use as more systems have a ‘digital twin’.

Does the way we make decisions contribute to overall system performance? 

Yes, if the appropriate approach to decision-making is in play, then timely, optimal decisions can help.  The converse is true also – if option choosing with consultation is applied in an urgent situation, failure may occur before an appropriate response; or if training and experience are relied on solely when other information could have been consulted, then past errors may be repeated.

At the end of our event, we’ll be holding a panel discussion with all three speakers, what will be your burning question for the panel?

I’d like to know how best to inform and educate the wider public on the ‘reality’ of human decision-making in safety-critical situations.

What do you think the takeaway will be for those attending this event?

I hope people will reflect on where their organisation might be reliant on human decision-makers and whether those people have been set up for success from their initial development, through continuing experience and learning to the situation ‘on the day’.

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