Author Angus Keddie
A pandemic is the outbreak and spread of an infectious disease across a large region affecting a substantial number of people. The latest pandemic is a Coronavirus named COVID-19. As of 29 June 2020, there were more than 10 million reported cases of COVID-19 reported in over 200 countries and territories, resulting in more than 500,000 deaths and with no real prospect of a cure this year. The economic impact of this pandemic is expected to be staggering. The June 2020 OECD Economic Output predicted that in a double-hit scenario, where a second wave of infections hits before year-end triggering a return to lock-downs, world economic output will plummets 7.6% this year, before climbing back only 2.8% in 2021.
The last pandemic to have such a severe global impact was the so-called Spanish Flu which was virulent almost 100 years ago. It is estimated that, following 2nd and 3rd waves, around 1/3 of the world’s the 1.5 bn population became infected, with up to 50 million fatalities. Interestingly, in spite of infection and fatality rates which are orders of magnitude greater than that expected for even a worst case COVID-19 outcome, the economic impact was no worse than the OECD numbers from the previous paragraph (~7%).
It would be challenging even for a cohort of collaborating experts to tease out the reasons behind this apparent discrepancy. However, one may be that in 2020, as the virus spread governments quickly saw what was happening and, knowing that their populations could also see, took decisive action to drastically restrict movement and contact (and therefore commerce). Fortunately, mitigation was available in the form of the ability of many to continue to work from home because of technological advances of the past half century (video conferencing in 1964; the internet in 1983; screen sharing in 2007).
These restrictions are now being gradually lifted at varying rates internationally. One popular question is how quickly we can get back to the old normal? I would suggest….probably never.
According to a June 2020 article by Michael Dulaney in ABC Science, human impacts on the natural world are causing new infectious diseases to emerge more frequently than ever before, meaning the arrival of the next pandemic is only a matter of time. Nearly all emerging pathogens like COVID-19 come from “zoonotic transfer” — essentially, when a virus present in animals jumps to infect humans. Researchers have counted around 200 infectious diseases that have broken out in this way more than 12,000 times over the past three decades. On average, one new infectious disease jumps from animal to human every four months. The current global dynamic is only exacerbating this key pandemic source. Dulaney references a conversation with Dr Simon Reid, an Australian based Infectious Disease Researcher, who says the 3 key factors in the emergence of such diseases: land use change (greater encroachment into wild animal habitats), demographic change (more people living in crowded cities and flying between them) and agriculture (factory farming lowers animal immune systems) are conspiring to accelerate zoonotic transfer and dissemination.
And if a novel virus does emerge and become a pandemic, how long is it likely for a vaccine to be developed? Not quickly, according to a NY Times article from April, referring to the prolonged development time for vaccines to counter significant recent virus (Varicella, FluMist, Human papillomavirus, Rotavirus – all 15+ years)
So, in the short and medium term (10-20 years?) governments will have to continue to react conservatively to a likely accelerating number of emerging pathogens. Which means that the old normal will probably be consigned to history. Fortunately, we have shown ourselves to be an extremely adaptable species and, in the work context we will by continuing while limiting contact and travel. All of which brings me to remote HAZOP.
Like countless other activities, HAZOP has gone partially online in the past few months. Indeed, I have chaired 2 reviews in recent weeks where I was remote from the team (and 5 in recent years where there was at least one remote element), during which I sensed a feeling that this was a temporary inconvenience.
Ultimately, decisions about the approach employed for current and future HAZOPs (Traditional? Remote? Blended?), are largely determined by cost. Certainly, while moving away from tradition (getting all participants together in the same room) involves challenges (loss of body language cues; inability to physically interact; increased reliance on communication technology; discomfort of the new), there are, according to a recent HFL blog post also unexpected benefits (technology restricting the few from talking over the many with much more pausing to allow others to speak; side conversations either not conducted or muted in a manner which does not disrupt the group; no ability for people to attempt to modify the P&ID or sketch in proposed new designs; information sharing rapid and in real time – screen sharing allows for change of control so that participants can show documents and communicate concepts easily). Indeed, one study suggests that even if there are remote inefficiencies in the near term (20%), a representative HAZOP (Example 20 working days for 10 local of a South Africa operator, with 5 French designer engineers and a 2 strong British HAZOP facilitation team flying in) a Blended HAZOP is still cheaper than a traditional one.
The old normal is dead…..long live the new normal, where the hand that rocks the Blended HAZOP rules the Process Safety World.