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Oct 2016

Safety Through Improvement

Lessons from flat tyres

Picture: 1950's on-the-road breakdown repairs


I have 2 vehicle-related anecdotes from which lessons can be learnt. The first is from my youth and the second a much more recent one.

I still remember vividly the long trips we used to take by car when I was a young boy, growing up in Namibia in the 1950’s.

In those days, there were no tarmac roads and motor vehicles weren’t very reliable. It was quite normal on such trips for the car to break down a few times. Two or three punctures and maybe even having to replace a tyre were quite common too. This meant that, before every trip, we had to prepare a set of spares, including spark plugs, fan belts and, of course, tyres, tubes and patches. We also packed a toolbox, tyre pump, wheel spanner, jack and a can of water (to fill up the radiator) into the car. Invariably, dealing with breakdowns meant cuts, bruises and other injuries, so the First Aid kit we carried in the car was also restocked on a regular basis.

The lesson to be learnt from this story is that plant and process reliability improve safety. Every time we have to carry out maintenance work or an operational intervention, especially modifications, changes and non-routine work, the risk of injury and damage increases because we have to fit and fiddle to make things work. It is for that reason that we have to change things for the better through continuous improvement [1]. One way to do that is to look at how advances in technology can help us to design in safety.

Recently, as I was driving home, I noticed a slight vibration on the steering and that the car was pulling to the left. I didn’t worry about it too much and drove on. When I got home, I saw that one of the front tyres was almost flat. On closer inspection, I noticed that a nail had pierced the sidewall of the tyre, causing a slow puncture.

A tyre going flat from a nail puncture doesn’t happen overnight. In a slow puncture, the tyre loses pressure slowly over a number of days, which brings me to the lesson in this anecdote. Despite the best advances in technology and design, we still have to play our part in safety. I didn’t carry out the Circle of Safety [2], i.e. I didn’t walk around my car before starting the engine and driving off. If I had, I would definitely have noticed that the tyre was going flat and have avoided a potentially serious incident. Just imagine what could have happened if I had been taking a longer trip, at full speed, on the highway!

Picture: Disruptive safety call to action icon

  1. Get together with your maintenance and operations teams to examine maintenance and non-routine operations tasks that involve a high degree of risk, e.g. potentially fatal situations like working at heights, lifting loads, working in confined spaces, lockouts, etc. This is like a HIRA (Hazard Identification Risk Assessment), except that it has a specific focus on design and plant and process reliability.
  2. It is best to man these teams with the people who “push the buttons and use the tools”. I’m not suggesting that you exclude the engineers, just that you apply a hands-on approach, rather than sticking to the boardroom / paper exercise.
  3. Keep it simple to start with and don’t fall into the trap of analysis paralysis by trying to redesign the entire process or machine. Look for opportunities for projects which involve minimal resources and can be done fairly quickly, yet still result in an immediate and visible improvement in safety [3].

[1]    “Prevention rather than cure

[2]    “Walking the Circle of Safety

[3]    “Just Do Something Safe

        “Ukuhlanya: Safety Paradox & Disruptive Safety


Your comments and feedback are always welcome!

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