A RISK assessment concept used by Australia’s transmission pipeline industry is about to get a new tool that will ensure decision-making reflects our increasingly complex world.

A team at the Energy Pipelines Cooperative Research Centre has been examining how the legal concept of as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) has influenced decision-making in pipeline design, construction and operations.

While ALARP is a concept used in law for several centuries, two mid-20th century judgements have shaped how ALARP is interpreted in risk management, including in some aspects of the transmission pipeline industry Standard, AS 2885.

In a paper presented to the APGA 2016 Annual Convention and Exhibition in Perth today, Energy Pipelines CRC Associate Professor Jan Hayes and GPA Engineering Senior Project Engineer Richard McDonough suggest the ALARP assessment methodology developed as a consequence of those cases is limited, and may no longer be adequate to properly guide decision-making.

Recent developments in Australian workplace health and safety law place proactive responsibilities on senior personnel in organisations, so they must be fully informed to make proper decisions.

“The concept of gross disproportion established in those mid-20th century cases basically means you have to do everything you can until the cost of reducing the risk is grossly disproportionate to the benefit gained from taking that action,” Mr McDonough said.

“There can be a tendency to see this as a simple cost benefit analysis, but we argue that ALARP is a lot broader than this: you have to consider a greater range of elements. Importantly, it’s a judgment, not an equation. You can’t just plug in a set of numbers – it requires judgement in decision-making.”

One outcome of the research project is a detailed set of questions that guide the risk assessment process and take into account a broader range of risks, consequences and mitigation strategies.

“Once you answer all the questions, a story emerges and this will help make the judgement call required,” Mr McDonough said.

“While costs and benefits are considered in this process, a simple cost-benefit analysis can have a very high level of uncertainty arising from both sides of the equation. For example, it’s very hard to make a precise estimate of cost and frequency for a large catastrophic event which has an extremely low likelihood of occurring.

“The industry has had a lot of practice at working out what the solutions might be – we have a portfolio of solutions that might be applied in different situations. It is not a technical decision, although it has a lot of technical input. These are serious decisions that must be made by senior management. Risk decisions must be presented to management in a way that enables them to make good, informed decisions.”

The new ALARP assessment process is expected to be introduced into AS 2885 as part of the current revision process.