Process Safety: Emulate What Works for Airlines

Rigorous use of checklists can provide important benefits

By Andrew Sloley, Contributing Editor

Update checklists to incorporate lessons your plant has learned from problems.

Flying commercially is the safest way to travel today. This is because airlines pay scrupulous attention to the many, many small things required for safety and success. The aviation industry relies on checklists to keep track of all these details. For example, at the start of every flight, the pilot and co-pilot always go through a specific checklist. They do this no matter how many times they have flown the aircraft. The process industries can learn from this approach.

Checklists can cover safety, installation, maintenance, purchasing, optimization, security, troubleshooting and other tasks. A standard checklist, when available, can serve as a good starting point but should get customized for the particular plant.

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In keeping with the theme, here’s a checklist for checklists:

1. [ ] Do you have a checklist at all for that task/job/situation?
2. [ ] Do you use it?
3. [ ] Do you really check off the boxes?
4. [ ] Does the checklist have a logical organization?
5. [ ] Has it been updated with lessons learned?
6. [ ] Have you gotten input from others to improve it?
7. [ ] Does the checklist have a clearly defined objective?
8. [ ] Does it catch major errors or problems?
9. [ ] Does it include items that are easy to forget or miss?
10. [ ] How long is the checklist?

Now let’s briefly touch upon each of these items.

1. Not every effort needs a checklist; if you’re an expert on a task, you probably wouldn’t use the checklist anyway. Checklists suit situations that come up often enough that they are a part of the job but rarely enough that they never get routine.

2. No checklist helps when it’s ignored. If you think a task should have one but you never use it, figure out why.

3. Having boxes to check off is important. The physical act of marking a box makes us stop to think more about the task. Acceptable alternatives might be a line to write down status information or other observations — a word or two should suffice.

4. Logical organization lets questions build upon each other. It also minimizes wasted work. If the checklist is for troubleshooting a problem, put questions about the most likely culprits first.

5. Checklists shouldn’t be static. They should incorporate lessons your plant has learned from problems. If these aren’t covered on the checklist, update it to include them.

6. Checklists typically reflect the knowledge of the individual developer, who may not have much experience in the situations in which they will be used. So, when developing or reviewing and updating checklists, get your predecessor, the engineers and operators you work with, and other professional colleagues to take a look and offer suggestions for improvements.

7. The best checklists have a clearly defined objective. For example: “At the end of completing this checklist, I’ll be confident that my pump problem comes from incorrect grouting or not” or “At the end of completing this checklist, I’ll be confident that my pump problem comes from pipe stress or not.”

8. Checklists should cover major items or problems and catch them quickly. More unusual or complex issues often require more analytical work or analysis than a simple checklist will support.

9. Checklists are great tools for ensuring items that are easy to forget or miss aren’t ignored. If you can’t engineer out a frequent or common problem, requiring it to be checked off helps a lot.

10. Checklists should be the right length. If they’re too short, they’ll lack useful content. If too long, they’ll bog the user down. When updating to add new steps, also make sure to remove obsolete items. A length of one to two pages seems reasonable for most checklists.

In a process plant, checklists fit into the zone between a brief note and a full-fledged and detailed procedure. They fill key purposes — improving safety, profits and reliability. If you aren’t using checklists, figure out why.

ANDREW SLOLEY is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. You can email him at

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