Ask Our Expert Blog Series: Ben Mittelstadt

Zero pipeline incidents that could impact the public is a goal[1] of the pipeline industry. While industry is trending better and incident rates have dropped significantly, we know that there is more to do. The critical factor to have a continuously improving pipeline integrity management system in place is derived from understanding and analyzing the causes and learning from past incidents or near-misses. Transmission and Midstream operators are continuing to develop and refine detailed failure investigations to be proactive in mitigating potential future risks in their journey of ‘aiming for zero.’  Pipeline operators also need not wait for an incident to occur, effective learning using incident investigation can and should be applied to past incidents and to near-misses using leading indicators.

Two types of investigative analysis are Direct Cause Analysis (DCA) and Root Cause Analysis (RCA)

Direct Cause Analysis is used to identify the primary agent leading up to an event or potential event without which the event would not have happened. It is the specific mode of failure as determined by scientific examination and evidence.

Root Cause Analysis may incorporate DCA but focuses on identification of the most fundamental reason for an incident which, upon mitigation, will prevent the re-occurrence. This is often the most basic cause that can be reasonably identified by management and has control to fix. For example, direct cause of a failure of a pipeline may be wall loss due to corrosion and overstress of the remaining steel.

A Root Cause would explore how an incident occurred, including what mitigation systems failed, what conditions were undetected, what management systems were designed to identify the deficiencies, and why they were deficient. It is notable that if RCAs were to be applied retroactively to the significant pipeline failures that have occurred over the last 20 years, fundamental failure of management systems would likely be a contributing factor for many of these failures.

Often failure analysis efforts stop with DCA, but truly achieving zero will require a much deeper analysis including identification of lessons learned, appropriate corrective actions, review of threats not fully addressed, developing an effective decision process for checks and balances, and finally, management of change and knowledge transfer.  This effort requires a multi-faceted team of experts in applicable areas of engineering, business processes, change management, human factors, environmental health and safety, and management systems.

Pipelines are the safest way to transport energy, and while incidents are rare, our industry has an obligation to make them even more rare. We owe it to the public and the environment, and to ourselves as we defend our social right to operate these complex engineered systems. Root cause analysis is the best tool an operator has for organizational learning, strengthening management systems, and achieving exemplary safety performance to meet industry Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals.

[1] INGAA Website: Members have a goal of zero pipeline incidents. https://www.ingaa.org/Pipelines101/Safety.aspx


ABOUT THE AUTHORBen Mittelstadt, Director – Technical Services

Ben Mittelstadt has 20 years of experience related to engineering, project management, operation, and integrity management of pipelines. Spending the first 12 years with pipeline operators before becoming a consultant, Ben has developed and supported execution of all aspects of Integrity Management Plans and has extensive experience with integrity assessment methods including in-line inspection (ILI) and hydrostatic testing.

Ben earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado State University in 2001 and is a registered Professional Engineer in the states of Texas and Massachusetts. He has served as a senior level integrity engineer and manager of risk management for two major pipeline operators and has led or provided support to a wide array of projects over his career including root cause investigations, IMP development and execution, integrity assessments, pipeline failure response, regulatory audits, review and development of standards and procedures, and development of risk-based mitigation programs.

Ben can be reached at Ben_Mittelstadt@dynamicrisk.net