Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Slipping through the cracks


When I was a young-ish tech writer I read a test document that was given to me to "clean up."

The equipment being tested was electronic and the main tool was an oscilloscope.

The text went something like this:

  1. Connect the scope to Test Point A.
  2. Set the scope to (whatever).
  3. Apply power to the equipment.
  1. Connect the scope to Test Point B.
  2. Set the scope to (whatever).
  3. Apply power to the equipment.

Any thing wrong with that?

Not if the reader is an experienced person, but for the novice, trying to connect a single probe to two different test points at the same time is a bit of a problem; the test writer failed to disconnect the probe.

Later on, I was writing mil-spec documents for "process control systems." In this case, the process control controlled super-heated steam under very high pressure. Much of the gear went aboard Navy ships.

When a technician needs to work on a valve - the "control" in "process control" - the tech would first shut off AND TAG CLOSED the fluid input source, then the tech would shut off and tag the output destination. Basically, if "O" = open/close control, "I" = the valve, and "---" is the connecting pipe with > the flow direction, the arrangement was

-----> O -------> I ------> O ----->

Sometimes, of course, the tech had to shut off other "feeds" and all these had to be tagged.

The Navy is very big on keeping highly trained technical personnel safe.

Obviously, if the tech was going to work on the valve in the diagram, the feed would be closed. The tag was to prevent someone, discovering there was no steam where it was needed, from finding the closed valve and, without thinking, open it.

The military in general is pretty safety conscious. Whip antennas for vehicle-mounted, fairly high powered two-way radio gear usually carry a Don't Touch Antenna Base warning; RF can do more than curl your hair; it can kill.

As a tech writer, it quickly becomes clear that any document covering anything that might be dangerous will include warnings and cautions and that these warnings and cautions will be used only in specific instances. The services also are - or at least in my day were - strict about "will," "shall," and "may."

That's not to say nothing was "screwy" in the service. Tech writers were forbidden (and forced to rewrite documents) to require a person to "screw in" or "unscrew" something. Too "suggestive." Threaded fasteners had to be "turned in" or "turned out."

For all that, the bottom line for tech writers was to concisely document what had to be done, to assure the information could be comprehended by the intended audience - and trust me on this, the number of years in school had nothing to do with it; training and experience was everything - and that all safety concerns were documented.

The lessons I learned as a tech writer carry over to my business continuity documentation.

A responder doesn't go charging into a fire-gutted building; the responder waits for a person who knows structures to determine if it is safe to go into the building.

A responder doesn't turn a possibly damaged machine off or on at the machine; the power is controlled at a breaker/fuse box.

Even clearing a copier has some risks. Remove rings and watches that could get caught or could entice a spark from a circuit. Wearing a tie? Tuck it into your shirt. Simple stuff that many times no one thinks to do.

I once worked for a telephony accessory manufacturer - the main product was a Station Message Detail Recorder (SMDR). They came in all sizes. One monster unit with reel-to-reel tape lacked what I - a simple tech writer - considered sufficient system grounding. I complained to the Italian engineer who designed the box and for that I was chastised. What kind of chutzpan was I to tell an ENGINEER that maybe there needed to be a system ground!

A little later, a trainer was showing some prospective customers for this box how it worked. The trainer wore metal-rim glasses. As he bent over the guts of the box, a spark arced and nailed the bridge of his glasses. The next day, the box had a system ground. (The moral to that story for planners is simple: Listen to everyone; they might just know something you and your experts don't know.)

As with the military gear, the civilian equipment also has it share of warnings and cautions.

Ever notice the warnings not to disassemble a monitor or tv? My #2 son, the Geek, has done both and will do neither again. He learned that there is a reason for the warnings. #1 son learned that yes, you really SHOULD turn off power before trying to remove an element from a water heater. I'm not sure they pay any more attention to my admonishments now than before their "experiences," but they do have a greater respect for warnings and cautions.

No matter if the document covers response to an "event" or installation/operation/maintenance of simple or complex equipment and systems, personnel safety must always be the Number One concern, of the planner and of the writer (who often, in this business, are one and the same).

John Glenn, MBCI
Enterprise Risk Management/Business Continuity practitioner
Ft. Lauderdale FL
Planner @ JohnGlennMBCI.com



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