The Silent Q

Is it possible to separate quality from health, safety and environmental management, or are they inextricably linked in QHSE (or one of the equivalent abbreviations – SHEQ, HSEQ, QUENSH, etc)?

When considering the skill sets and competences required to address the technicalities of each, there are clearly differing needs from the viewpoint of the customer, not least with the upstream oil and gas sector (the business of finding reserves and getting them out of the ground to the refineries).  However, when considering an organization’s management system, there can be no justification in separating them.  There may be separate manuals and documentation, there may be separate departments and figureheads leading the disciplines, but they are all tied together as one system to manage the organization’s operations.  Forcibly segregating them inevitably leads to stress, conflict, confusion, inefficiency and ineffectiveness – to varying degrees.

The major oil companies (and many other organisations running high safety/environmental risk operations) spend extraordinary efforts on HSE – the avoidance of accidents, injuries, illness and spills is paramount. Despite what may be surmised in the popular media, no senior executive in a prominent UK oil company would seriously put profit ahead of safety.  Profit is important, and efforts will always be made to maximise it, but always with a mind on HSE risk.  That is not to say people never get it wrong – risk management means managing risk, not eliminating it, and even a million-to-one chance can happen tomorrow.

If you’re wondering where the “Q” has gone, having said it was an integral part of QHSE, it has become a silent “Q”.  The term often used within oil companies is integrityoperations integrity, integrity management and the like.  So much of the business is contracted out that the oil company’s role is almost reduced to that of providing the direction and funding for others to carry out the work.  Quality management still has a role in-house but its focus is on contractors and suppliers, with the quality of products and services throughout the supply chain having a direct impact on HSE.  But the focus on HSE has meant that, in some organisations, the need for specialists in these disciplines has meant fewer specialists in Q and, consequently, issues such people would have managed are being overlooked (or, at least, given a much lower priority).

Several years ago, the UK’s H&SE (Health & Safety Executive) published guidance for inspectors visiting high risk industrial sites.  One of the concerns expressed was that a focus on “slips, trips and falls”  was leading to a concern that less frequent but more potent hazards, such as plant failures, were receiving less attention than they should.

Management systems need to be integrated.  Well, in truth, most organisations have just one system but it’s often documented under different headings (we shouldn’t confuse the system itself with the documentation describing it).  But integration of documentation doesn’t mean they don’t need the full range of skills that might otherwise be present.  Companies need specialists in quality management just as much as they need them in safety, occupational health and environmental management.

(First posted here as a blog on 8th October 2011)