Process Safety Episode 42 Platypus

Podcast: Don’t Dismiss Process Safety Weak Signals — Find Your Platypus

April 7, 2023
Cognitive biases lead to process-safety events. By getting our brains used to looking for the unusual, we can better manage safety in our facilities.


Traci: Welcome to Process Safety with Trish and Traci, the podcast that aims to share insights from past incidents to help avoid future events. This podcast and its transcript can be found at I'm Traci Purdum, editor-in-chief of Chemical Processing, and as always, I'm joined by Trish Kerin, the director of the IChemE Safety Centre. Hey Trish, how are you?

Trish: I'm doing well, Traci, how are you doing today?

Traci: I am doing fine. I know you have been skipping across oceans lately. Can you give us a little bit of an update on what you've been up to?

Trish: Yeah, so I spent a couple of weeks in Houston recently, so I was at the Global Congress on Process Safety. Great event. So kudos to AIChE and CCPs for delivering another fantastic event. And it was wonderful to see all my old friends again in the US that I hadn't seen for a year. So I always love coming over to catch up with everybody. And then I popped across to Europe for another process safety conference that we manage before a short journey into London to do an ethics in safety event, and then I headed home. So I certainly have been popping across a lot of oceans lately.

Traci: You're in high demand and I appreciate you taking the time always to spend time with us here on Chemical Processing with this podcast. I want to give a shout-out to one of our newest subscribers, Odell Andrews. Odell is a rigger and able seaman based out of Louisiana. He's originally from Trinidad. He and I crossed paths several years ago on a cruise ship touring the fall foliage in New England and Canada. He was our bartender on board, so I guess that says something about me. But we did keep in touch, and I recently learned he now works in the oil and gas industry, so to steal from you, Trish, stay safe out there, Odell, and thanks for subscribing to this podcast.

And now, on to today's episode. In addition to all of your jet-setting, and all of the roles that you effortlessly execute, you are also a published author, and you have two books. Let's talk about your leadership, learning through the art of storytelling and your most recent, The Platypus Philosophy: How to identify and manage weak signals, both available on Amazon. In this podcast, we're going to talk about the latter and get our platypus hunting gear on.

Traci: So my first question to you, why a platypus?

Trish: Well, a platypus is an amazing little creature. For those of you that have never heard of it, it is a creature that's endemic to Australia only, so you won't find it anywhere else in the world. And in fact, it only lives on the east coast of Australia. You won't even find it in the center or in Western Australia either. So, it's got a very narrow band of area in the world it lives in. And it is this amazing little creature. They're very cute to look at. They're actually quite adorable. I know they're about a foot and a half long, maybe two foot so they're not that big, but they're very strange-looking little creatures. So it's what we call a monotreme to start with. That means it's a mammal that actually lays eggs. It doesn't give birth to live young like every other mammal except the echidna, which is also another weird Australian animal.

So we've got only two monotremes in the world in Australia, but it has some really strange features to it. So the platypus has the bill of a duck, the tale of a beaver, the claws of an otter. It's covered in fur that is actually bioluminescent under ultraviolet light. It, as I said, it gives birth to live young. It forages in the water using electroreceptors in its bill. So it actually doesn't use its eyes to find its food. It uses electro receptors like a shark or a bat would to try and locate its prey underwater. It lives in nests in the riverbanks, though, so it actually lives on land, but spends most of its life in the water. It's active at night and at twilight and dawn, so it's only active at certain points of the day as well. And another really unusual feature about a platypus is that the male platypus has a spur on its back legs that can inject a toxin into you.

Now, that's really rare in the animal world because, typically, mammals don't have toxins. So not only is it a mammal that lays eggs, it's a mammal that can actually inject a toxin into you, so it can hurt. It won't kill you, but by all reports, the toxin is so strong and so painful that it'll last a couple of days, and you'll certainly wish it would go away, but no painkillers that are known to humankind will actually work on it either. So you can't stop the pain, you just have to live through it until it goes away.

Traci: Good grief.

Trish: So, as people say in Australia, we have all of these different animals in Australia. Every one of them is trying to kill you somehow, but they're always cute as well. So, we have these adorable little creatures that are really quite strange. And the reason that I wrote about a platypus because I'm a professional process safety engineer, this all sounds a bit weird, why did I write about a platypus? Well, the platypus itself is proof that the impossible is possible because who would've thought that an animal would have a duck's spill, a beaver's tail, otter's claws, glow in the dark and all these other features that it has, it makes no sense. It is so improbable, but it exists, it's real.

And the other thing is that if we only see a glimpse of say it's bill, we might think we've got a duck, not a platypus, until we go looking to figure out what it is. So the platypus is actually a wonderful metaphor for talking about weak signals in our facilities and trying to understand what those weak signals are. So we might see a glimpse of the bill and think, oh, I don't need to worry about that. That's just a duck. But if it's a platypus, remember the platypus has a spur with toxin that can hurt you. So you've got to go and find your platypuses in your facility so you can actually do something about them. We've got to identify our weak signals, find them and manage them.

Traci: Well, that brings up a question though. How do you find platypuses in your facilities? Do you look for the duck bill? What do we do?

Trish: So weak signals they occur every day around us in everyday life as well as in our facilities. And in fact, my little concept of the platypus philosophy applies to everyday living as well as is working in high-hazard facilities. You need to be open to seeing that there is a weak signal around you. And then you've got to have a process that you can define to actually really dig in and say, well, let's investigate and see what's going on with this weak signal. Let's see if it is a duck or if it is a platypus because then we can actually manage it at that point. So it's about going through a process of understanding what the platypus is in your facility. So I developed a simple way to think about managing the weak signals we see, and I use the word platypus as a way to remind me of the different steps in the process.

So as a memory aid or a pneumonic. So the first one is P for the first P in platypus, and that's where you have the partial sighting and you need to make sure you've got systems in place to actually report it and record it. So that might be an alarm that makes no sense or a lead indicator that's telling you something is a bit strange, or an operator notices something unusual in the field, that pump doesn't sound right, or there's a strange thing occurring in this part of the plant in terms of the temperature profile that we just can't quite explain. There's nothing obviously going wrong, but there's a weak signal that's just appeared. L is to link the data. We need to look at what occurred and when and what information or data trends can be found on that particular weak signal at the time.

And then A is for assess the data. What are the conditions when it occurred? Were there any special conditions or process parameters that were going on at the same time? Task and timing. What else was happening? What simultaneous operations were going on? Does this weak signal only appear at a particular stage in a process, for example, or a particular time of day or day of the week? Y is for yesterday and yonder. Has it ever happened here before? Has it happened somewhere else? We need to explore some of the existing knowledge and learning out there. P is to perceive the scenarios, so understand what the hazards could be now that we've got a little bit more information on this weak signal and what consequences could eventuate and that way we can actually start to map out and understand the risk and U is to understand the controls.

So that's when we actually then define the controls that we need to put in place. Once we know what the hazards are and what the consequences are we can then get to the control stage of our risk management process. And lastly, S, you got to secure the platypus. So this is where we need to make sure that the controls are implemented. We consult with the workforce on how to do this. They know a lot about what goes on in our facilities, document what's going on and make sure that we've got it in place. We create the knowledge management around managing the platypuses that we have. So that sort of is a quick way to describe how we identify the platypuses and then what we do with them in our facility.

Traci: You really have thought through this and just the visual and having the pneumonic there is very helpful. And as I was reading the book, you talk about weak signals that get overlooked, events that seem to resolve themselves on their own. For me, I chalk those up to things that I can cross off my to-do list. Okay, it's fixed itself. I don't have to worry about that, but that's not really prudent, is it?

Trish: No, it's not. Because it might be a platypus lurking there that you need to actually really manage. If we just assume it's a duck, and we don't need to worry, or it's a beaver, we don't need to worry about it, we can just move on with life. But if it is a platypus, it is going to pop up at some other point in time and create a problem. And we do need a degree of experience in looking at some of these weak signals to say, I really need to understand that one a little bit more.

But with the platypus philosophy very early on in the start of the concept, as we work through the P, L, A, T, you actually then get to that point of, and so that point that you can start to dismiss it. So you don't need to go through all of the steps every time if you find halfway through the steps, it is a duck, and you don't need to worry about it. Some of the other things we need to be aware of, though is understanding why we don't see weak signals, and that can really be a challenge for us. We miss out on seeing those. It's not even that we dismiss them, we actually just don't even see them, and that can be a really big challenge for us too.

Traci: But why do they get ignored? Why don't we see them?

Trish: So, I think there's a couple of different parts to that. One of them is that we are just so busy that we get caught up, and we perhaps don't even notice things anymore. That comes into the concept of normalization of deviance. We just don't notice the small changes anymore. The other part of it, though, is that there's a whole series of cognitive biases that impact how we see certain things in the world and how we want to see certain things. And I've gone through and looked at some different biases and thought about why they impact our ability to see our weak signals. So one of them is the ostrich effect. I don't want to find a platypus in my facility because if I did, I'd have to do something about it. Confirmation bias is, well, we don't have platypus here. We only ever have beavers, so I don't need to look for the platypuses, I see the beaver tails all the time.

Platypuses only exist in other places, they're never here. So that's an example of anchoring. I've never seen one here. Therefore, they don't exist here. Framing is another bias that we have. Well, I don't need to worry about it because they're cute little animals. What harm could they possibly do? Because it might be a female platypus. A female platypus can't hurt you, but a male platypus can. There's another one called the illusionary truth effect, and this is where we see signs of the platypus all the time, but we never see the whole platypus and we haven't had a problem yet so we've got this illusion that it's not a problem for us. Another one is the curse of knowledge. Well, everybody knows about the platypuses and how to manage them, so I don't need to deal with it. Everybody knows what needs to be done. We think everybody knows because we might know.

Another one is an interesting bias called pareidolia, and this is where we see images in things where there's just actually no images to see. So it's that classic. You look at the clouds in the sky and you can see the animal in the clouds. That's pareidolia. We actually make meaning out of something that doesn't exist. So I've seen the signs, but it's just a duck. I don't need to worry about it is a classic pareidolia response here. Anecdotal fallacy is another one. I've never seen it, so I don't believe they exist. Neglective probability. Well, it's so rare, it's not likely they're going to be here. But remember, the platypus is proof that the impossible is possible. Information bias is another one. I keep looking for them in the desert, but I can't see them because I'm looking for them in the wrong spot. You go looking for the weak signal in a completely different spot where you're not going to see it, you're not going to find a platypus in the desert, for example. That's not their habitat and the illusion of control.

Well, even if we have a platypus I can manage it. I know what to do. And so all of these things sort of inhibit our ability to process the weak signals. I mentioned earlier as well we need to think about sometimes we get normalized and we don't even become aware of what the signal is. And I think there's some ways that we can perhaps try and again, use some biases to try and prime ourselves to look for these weak signals, to look for the unusual thing. One of my suggestions is once a day, if we just sort of sit down at the end of the day and think, what unusual thing did I see today that I didn't even really think about at the time? We start to get our brain used to looking for the unusual, because that's actually what we need to do. We need to find the unusual, by definition, we miss it a lot because it's not unusual. We find that unusual, then we can actually start to manage it in our facilities.

Traci: Now talking about some of these common biases, and in the book you offered a toolkit to overcome some of these biases. One idea that you highlight is when a decision needs to be reached, instead of a free discussion, have each person write down their initial ideas first. This way their thoughts aren't influenced by others during the discussion. This is a great tip. Can you point out a few more tools from the book?

Trish: Yeah, so there's a whole lot of different things that we can do. So if we're stuck in confirmation bias, which is a very common bias that occurs in general life, it's around trying to have a conversation with someone else that might have the technical knowledge but is not engaged in the process that you're looking at or the issue you're trying to manage. Give them the data that you see and ask them what they see because you are looking at that data from the lens of wanting it to confirm what you already believe. But if someone else looks at it without your context, they might see a completely different picture and you can start to have a conversation and become open and more aware to what's going on around you. So I think this is a really interesting one. Another one, so I mentioned the ostrich effect. I don't want to see it. We need to create a culture of curiosity, which means we need to encourage people to ask questions.

Well, the best way to encourage people to do things is actually offer some form of reward. Now, I'm not saying we give them cash, we give them money. That's not what it's about. But encouraging people by thanking them for doing something. Create workplace games or quizzes that encourage people to seek information and be curious. These sound like little trivial things, but they're actually really important to try and create some really effective learning and observation in our workplace. So that's a couple of different examples. Another one is the framing one. So framing is actually a bias that we can use positively. We can prime our brains to look for things.

So if we actually have a conversation about a particular hazard that we might be expecting to see during a stage of the operation, maybe a startup, and we talk about that, and we talk about what it might look like if it presents and what the consequences could be, our brains subconsciously are going to be looking for that hazard because we've primed it to look for it. It's the classic. You go to buy a new car, and you buy your new car, and you buy a blue one, for example, and all of a sudden you start seeing a lot of blue cars and a lot of the models that you just bought. There's no more of them on the road, really. What you're seeing is noticing them now rather than not noticing them before. Your brain is primed to look for something now. And so priming can actually be, or framing can actually be a really good way to do that.

Traci: So many good tools in this book, it really, using the platypus as a visual is very powerful in anchoring the benefit of investigating further. And I think that when we all see a duck bill now I think we're all going to poke around and make sure we're really looking at a duck and not a platypus. Obviously, I'm not going to see a platypus here in Cleveland, Ohio, but just the visual, the metaphor, you really have something here that is super interesting. Is there a formal way though to put this philosophy into action?

Trish: So I haven't got that far in this book. I think there is going to be some further tools that come out with some useful prompts that take it that next step further. But we do actually, in this book, I do talk about a whole range of, I go through the pneumonic of the platypus, and as I go through that I do provide some examples of how to do each stage. And so really the formal process that we have right now is to follow the pneumonic of the platypus, and work your way through it when you see that weak signal. Work your way down until you've proven to yourself that either it is a platypus and you need to manage it, or it's not a platypus, it's only a duck or a beaver, or an otter, and everything else is okay. And so I think that's a really important part.

And you're right, it is a metaphorical platypus. You're not going to find platypuses literally outside the east coast of Australia, but it is such a unique looking creature. And the fact that I've used a platypus is part of another cognitive bias that we often don't really think about. But there's one called the bizarreness effect, and that one actually says that if I tell you a story that has a bizarre or strange element to it, you're more likely to remember it. So at some point in time someone's going to remember this weird Australian woman talking about a platypus because it's so strange. And that's a great thing to do.

Traci: Absolutely.

Trish: That's what I've created here. So it's about saying the next time you see something unusual, you've got to go and find your platypus. You've got to search for it and find it because it will be there. And if we don't find it, it can hurt us.

Traci: Anything you'd like to add? Any more bizarre things you'd like to tell us about Trish?

Trish: Ooh, there's always bizarre things I'd like to tell you about Traci. I have a lot. I'm from Australia. We have bizarre animals here, and I love them so much. Really, it's just be brave and think about what is that strange thing that I need to look at. I was talking to someone else about the platypus recently and they said you sound like you really believe in this idea. And I sort of went, well, I've just staked my entire professional engineering career on talking about a weird animal. So yeah, I believe in this as a way to try and help people understand and manage their weak signals. So ask yourself, where's my platypus? Where is the platypus here? If I can get people thinking about that when they see something strange, that's a massive improvement in where we are today because we are dismissing, we're so busy, we just dismiss the weak signals. Go and find your platypus.

Traci: Once again, Trish, thank you for always being a champion for safety, always coming up with unique ways to make people safer. Unfortunate events happen all over the world and we will be here to discuss and learn from them. Subscribe to this free podcast so you can stay on top of best practices. You can also visit us at for more tools and resources aimed at helping you run efficient and safe facilities. On behalf of Trish, I'm Traci, and this is Process Safety with Trish and Traci.

Trish: Stay safe.

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About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

About the Author

Trish Kerin, Stay Safe columnist | Director, IChemE Safety Centre

Trish Kerin is an award-winning international expert and keynote speaker in process safety and the inaugural director of the IChemE Safety Centre. Trish leverages her years of engineering and varied leadership experience to help organizations improve their process safety outcomes. 

She has represented industry to many government bodies and has sat on the board of the Australian National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority. She is a Chartered Engineer, registered Professional Process Safety Engineer, Fellow of IChemE and Engineers Australia. Trish also holds a diploma in OHS, a master of leadership and is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Her recent book "The Platypus Philosophy" helps operators identify weak signals. 

Her expertise has been recognized with the John A Brodie Medal (2015), the Trevor Kletz Merit Award (2018), Women in Safety Network’s Inaugural Leader of the Year (2022) and has been named a Superstar of STEM for 2023-2024 by Science and Technology Australia.

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