Preparing for the worst: risk assessment in the commercial world

19 January 2016

Dr Jones Wan (Croucher Fellowship 2001) is a Hong Kong-based Senior Consultant at Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a leading global provider of sustainability, environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting services. 

Wan enjoyed a successful academic career in Physics, including a Croucher Fellowship in 2001 to perform research in mesoscopic science at Princeton University and research positions at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 2010, Wan moved from academia to the commercial world. However, Wan’s move was not a complete change of direction; although he knew from early on in his academic career that he wanted to join the commercial world at some point, he wanted to do something at least loosely connected in some way. Consulting was the answer, as it enabled to Wan to make use of his scientific expertise whilst working alongside a variety of people.

ERM employs over 5000 specialists, in areas including process safety, air dispersion, climate change, and water quality. Some focus on particular industrial facilities, such as oil and gas or chemical facilities. Clients approach ERM to get their risk assessments needed for permits. For many industrial developments, a third party assessor must complete an assessment including suggestions, which will then be sent to various government authorities.

The objective of Wan’s work as a safety consultant is to solve clients’ problems. Much of this process revolves around the creation of simulations of explosions, fires, and toxic gas releases for individual industrial facilities. Over the past 100 years since the Industrial Revolution, there have been countless accidents related to fossil fuels, nuclear power plants, and oil refineries; the vast majority of which have been caused by human error.

One example of Wan’s work relates to the many water treatment plants in Hong Kong that use chlorine to sterilise water. Wan assesses the potential risks due to chlorine gas release - how it would travel and how many people would potentially be affected. His assessments and suggestions ensure that the risk is maintained at an acceptable level.

Another important aspect of Wan’s job involves giving clients advice on their emergency procedures. Industrial facilities use alarms to signal accidents. Wan gives advice on the strategic location of detectors, which is important given that detectors are expensive, require supervision and need to be maintained. It would therefore be unpractical to have them fitted everywhere. He also advises on the contingency plan should an alarm become activated. For example, should the plant immediately shut down all processes and evacuate any present personnel, or should the alarm first be investigated? In a nutshell, Wan’s job is to help industrial facilities to optimise all aspects of their safety procedures.

Wan enjoys the variety and challenges of his work. Although a risk assessment may appear to be a standard procedure, each case presents different challenges - and some challenges may turn out to be much bigger problems than expected. Wan makes an analogy of his work to that of a doctor:

“Sometimes, being a consultant is like being a doctor. A doctor is a medical consultant; if you have a headache, the doctor will give you medicine… If you keep having the headache, you see another doctor. They give you something similar, so you wonder what the problem is. When you get to the third doctor, you expect something different.

This is the problem: the client may not know what they want. The doctor takes time to investigate. Sometimes, the client has had a problem for years, but is not aware of it. They come to get recommendations, but with limitations.”

One particular issue Wan sees frequently is with older factories that have been running for 10 to 15 years in areas where there were no assessment requirements in the past - or at least less stringent guidelines. While some clients see the value in improving their image, and are keen to listen to suggestions and make changes, sometimes the new standards are simply too difficult to adapt to - the client would need to shut down the factory for an extended amount of time to make the necessary changes. In these cases, the client will often question the assessment.

At other times, the opposite is the case. For example, some industrial facilities are built at huge unnecessary expense, with the assumption that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. After five years or so, the factory owner will have the facility assessed. To their dismay, they may discover that they could have spared themselves great expense - by designing the facility taking into account more realistic scenarios, for example.

We’re all fairly accustomed to reading about disastrous industrial accidents in the media, but without the expertise of safety consultants like Wan, these accidents would occur far more frequently and with more serious consequences. Wan implores other scientists to consider the importance of such related, but practical, jobs. Many students narrow down their scientific focus, but Wan stresses the importance of being able to adopt and adapt.

Dr Jones Wan received his PhD in physics from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He was awarded the Croucher Research Fellowship in 2001 to perform his research in mesoscopic science at Princeton University. He worked at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology afterwards and joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong as research assistant professor. His research topics cover geophysics, nano-optics, liquid crystals, and quantum optics.

To view Jones Wan’s personal Croucher profile, please click here