The images of Grenfell Tower is live in our memories as I try to reconstruct the tragedy as it unfolded in London one late night, shattering the lives of its inhabitants.
Unsafe practices in companies take the toll of lives; where the enormity of the damage is very large, the costs leave the companies with such a drain on their balance sheets that very few can recover from that.
Damage to reputation could be even more tragic to recover; devastating events like those that happen in Oil rigs or large construction sites or nuclear reactors could damage economies of regions.
But safety can never be steered in a manner that it comes after an installation has been made. So design for safety must come before the architects start to think of basics and aesthetics.
Grenfell had some basic things wrong, like fire alarms or escape routes; but it had something far greater wrong, the facade was made of inflammable materials that made the fire spread so fast that within a short span the building became a cylinder of fire.
When factory layouts are made, the primary purpose of the layout is to ensure that the primary activities are performed efficiently; for a power plant it would mean that the coal handling plant must be housed as close to the boilers and the boilers must be so spaced that all the steam routings efficiently move the super steam section to the turbine.
But this simultaneously poses two challenges, one that the coal receiving area must be such that it could handle movement of large number of vehicles in the event that the coal is handled by trucks and dumpers; secondly the ash handling plant must have the area and the layout to handle fly ash movement to be executed efficiently.
Creating the right space for logistics of such movements is at the core of a safe design of factories. It is no different from the wrong choice of material as the facade, as in the case of the Grenfell Tower; when space becomes the limiting factor, vehicle queues and waiting times stands as the single biggest source of driver strife that leads to unsafe behaviors.
Driver behaviors are induced by extreme frustrations of idling while at the wheel for long hours and it cascades into speeding tendencies; some resort to breaking of basic rules which later fuses into unsafe acts outside the premises of the factories as well.
The spillover effects of these lead to extreme wrongful acts on the roads, where conditions further deteriorate.
The best design of a factory is that which has a driver management center, an elaborate rest center for the drivers and a traffic management that stops every queuing within the plant.
Queuing is however a much bigger topic that involves operations planning both on the inbound side and the outbound. A high percentage of accidents happen from queuing alone.
Going back to big events that have crippled companies, one would see common patterns and trends. The most common things noticed are, like the Grenfell Tower, a complete lack of understanding about potential dangers.
The Swiss call this “Danger Appreciation Programs”. To construct future scenarios where things could go wrong is the best way to ideate a potential disaster.
The architects of most installations are never great logisticians, but you can hardly blame them as they create an installation which is visualized without material movements, congestion, queuing and bottlenecks.
The best factory design is that which looks like the one on the drawing board for decades to come not the one which gets spoiled by the first brownfield expansion.
To design a safe work place or a large factory, you better have logisticians and fire experts and safety specialists working with architects from the inception of the design.
If Grenfell Tower designers had consulted the basic material experts they would have suggested that inflammable materials sandwiched between two aluminum layers is a disaster in the making.
Stage gate reviews of design better be left to these motley groups. They will have a field day, but they will ensure safety later.
The same is true for risky acts that get conducted without a review of a motley crowd, who come from diverse backgrounds, but who can question things with a different eye.
So when products fail in markets or when major breakdowns happen, let a motley crowd review this with fresh eyes; you could have new clues to avoid the next disasters.