Pause, Reflect, Act

The Difference Between Experiences and Learning in Process Safety

Jan. 24, 2024
Daily experiences vary, but key events hold lessons. Reflection is vital for learning and shaping success.

There is a difference between having an experience and learning from it. We have multiple experiences every day, but we don’t learn from every one of them — and we don’t really need to. However, some key experiences, such as a near-miss or safety incident, and even successful and positive experiences, such as winning an award or achieving a goal, have lessons to be learned. A vital component of learning is taking time to reflect on our experiences so we can convert them to learning that sticks in our minds. This is often the forgotten step, which is a reason we don’t learn from the past.

As the new year began, I took the opportunity to reflect on my role as the Director of the IChemE Safety Centre (ISC) with our approaching 10th anniversary on Jan. 6. Leading the ISC for the past decade has provided me with incredible experiences worldwide, delving into process safety across diverse cultures and industries. This journey has deepened my understanding of human factors and their impacts and allowed me to explore various leadership concepts.

Throughout these years, I've had the privilege of meeting outstanding individuals dedicated to process safety and forming meaningful friendships along the way. The ISC, evolving from a mere idea, has become an internationally recognized authority in process safety. It has contributed by generating leading practical guidance, valuable resources, educational materials and a distinctive process safety leadership program.

Reflecting on these experiences is crucial as I plan for the future. It's a moment to acknowledge what went well in this journey, identify areas for improvement and explore new opportunities armed with the knowledge gained. However, it's important to emphasize that this success is not solely attributable to my efforts; it's a collective achievement. Just like process safety, success requires collaboration from individuals with diverse skill sets and perspectives, challenging the status quo and fostering continuous improvement.

Why is it essential to engage in this reflection, and how does it relate to process safety? To truly glean insights from past events, we must be open to a thorough examination and contemplation of them. Whether we're dissecting an event in which we were directly involved or analyzing an incident on the other side of the globe, there are valuable lessons waiting to be uncovered.

The process involves scrutinizing our actions and decisions and considering what we could have done differently or better. Sometimes, it reaffirms lessons we've already internalized, while at other times, it introduces entirely new perspectives. Personally, a recurring lesson in my life has been the realization that with determination, I can overcome challenges and make things work. In the past decade, a new learning for me has been the profound impact of storytelling.

While you may recognize me as a staunch advocate of storytelling as a communication technique, it's important to note that this was a skill I consciously learned and honed. Both of these learnings have been shaped by the experiences of the past 10 years and will continue to influence the years ahead.

Engaging in reflection requires a dedicated portion of our time. It doesn't have to be a lengthy process, but it's crucial to carve out even a few minutes each day for this purpose. Taking a moment to reflect on the events of the day, focusing on what we observed or perhaps overlooked at the time, allows us to consider practical applications for that information. This practice contributes to the formation of memories that become valuable lessons, enabling us to learn from our experiences and strive to make tomorrow better than today.

So, what aspects of today will you allocate time to reflect upon? What lessons will you choose to extract from your experiences?

Stay safe.

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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