A lot is spoken or written about integrated management systems, often with the focus of merging different management systems (quality, health and safety, and environment) into a single system. Let me state my view a concisely as I can: all organisations operate with a single management system but it can be either integrated or disjointed.  When debating the merits of an integrated system the options tend to be integrated or separate – and views are divided; change those options to integrated or disjointed and I suspect few would argue for the latter. Whilst I’m going to talk about integration with respect to QHSE it’s important to remember that it also includes aspects of an organisation outwith the remit of ISO9001, OHSAS18001, ISO14001, etc – finance, corporate governance and a host of legislative needs have to be included.  I’m going to focus on the industry sector I know best (because I’ve been working in it for over 30 years) – and that’s the upstream oil and gas business and, in particular, the North Sea.  First, some history.

In the 1980’s, the industry was moving from a regime focusing on inspection (and an army of inspectors) towards utilising quality assurance techniques – getting to know the supply chain and working together in trying to avoid problems rather than trying to intercept them.  It’s unfortunate that this developed into a mania for paperwork where the inspection efforts were often just diverted onto paperwork reviews.  It was an improvement, but not as much as it could have been.

The new methods certainly led to a reduction in the myriad of issues (equipment failures leading to delays, rework, etc) which, following a few high profile failures (especially the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster), led to a greater focus go safety.  I don’t believe safety was being ignored (and it certainly wasn’t where I worked) but the increasing number of health and safety specialists being engaged led to a reduction in those with the specialist quality management skills.  When I asked, at one major oil company, why they had shut down their procurement QA team I was told it was unnecessary as they weren’t getting quality problems – I had to ask if anyone had thought about why they weren’t getting such problems any more.  A few years later, they started to engage some more inspectors.

This drive in the 1990’s, supplanting quality expertise with safety was seen as necessary to prevent a new “Piper Alpha”.  As we moved into the new millennium, environmental issues took on greater significance (again, not that they were previously being ignored) and media focus led to HSE being king.  The North Sea hasn’t been incident free but, when considering the hazards and risks present, the record has, in my view, been remarkable.  That’s not to say we should be content and not try to improve as nobody, and no organisation or operation is perfect.

Moving across the pond we need to consider the Macondo (Deepwater Horizon) disaster in 2010.  As I write this, the matter is still going through the US courts so I will only talk in generalities and express my own opinions.  And I am led to ask if any environmental management system would have prevented the environmental disaster, or whether any safety management system would have prevented the lost of well control that led to the fire and subsequent loss of life.  I emphasis the use of prevented because I believe the associated systems led to ways to manage and mitigate the impact (but we need to let the courts decide how effectively they did so).  The root cause, again in my opinion, was down to limitations in quality management.

And here I come to one of my main points about the relationship between quality management and HSE management – the quality focus is prevention whereas the HSE focus is management and mitigation.  That’s not to say HSE management systems don’t look at prevention, for they do on a day-to-day or task level – and I believe HSE tools and techniques such as impact assessments and risk assessments are vital in the overall management scheme – but this focus risks insufficient attention to the bigger, and longer term, picture.  Some will argue that environmental management does look at the long term picture for the Earth, and I will agree that it should, but my experience is that the practical implementation is often more local and short-term.

When I am helping to develop a management system for an organisation, my initial focus is on “quality”.  HSE aspects won’t be ignored but they become elements of the overall management system; sometimes the “quality” moniker is lost at the top level but the system remains founded on quality management principles.  Quality has to come first and can never be an add-on to HSE – and I will always use the abbreviation QHSE in favour of any option that doesn’t put the Q first (HSEQ, SHEQ, etc).

Maybe I’m biased, having spent most of my career with quality in my job title or function but (confession time) the first time I had any QHSE label was as a safety rep.  Perhaps I was lucky to see the light soon afterwards…

(Posted as a blog 11th April 2013)