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Our Industry’s Aversion to Risk: Nothing Is Risk-Free


By Warren Brand

“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.”
— Warren Buffett

I was 18 and SCUBA diving off a pristine, white, sandy beach in the Red Sea. My dive-buddy was a highly experienced world-traveling flight attendant who was roughly 15 feet in front of me as we were gliding down a gentle sandy slope.

The slope was teeming with sand-eels, whose skinny bodies stuck up from the white bottom like blades of grass swaying in a breeze. As we slid over them, they would duck down and disappear, parting in our path.

When we hit about 45 feet, I felt the first indication that my regulator was malfunctioning. I had trouble taking a breath. My second breath was more difficult, as was the third. There would be no fifth breath.

Brand, pool inspection
Photos: Warren Brand

The author, years after the story described here, carries out an underwater repair coating application on one of the highest swimming pools in the world in a skyscraper in downtown Chicago.

At this point, my training kicked in. I was calm and focused. I had two choices.

  1. Sprint-swim to reach my partner, who was now roughly 20 feet in front of me and 5 feet deeper. This was risky, as I was running out of air, and the sprint would make me breathe harder.
  2. Commit a free-ascent—that is, swimming to the surface while exhaling the entire way. The risk here is in the need to exhale the entire way; the trick is to make a “zee” sound the entire time, which forces your throat open. If you hold your breath ascending, all it takes is 4 feet of ascent for you to rupture one or both of your lungs—and die a particularly slow and painful death from an embolism.

I made the decision in a split second and decided to swim to her. I was concerned that she would not know where I went, and would frantically have to look for me, putting her at risk.

I kicked my flippers and shot forward and grabbed her fin. I made the universal sign of being out of air (by the time I reached her I could no longer take a breath) by running my finger across my neck.

I faced her and we grabbed each other’s vests. She looked straight into my eyes and handed me her regulator.

So far so good … until I forgot to press the purge valve, which clears out the saltwater so you can take a breath.

I had been holding my breath, at what was now 50 feet, for more than half a minute. Yet when I took a deep breath for air, I inhaled saltwater instead.

The following photos display a proof of concept developed by the author’s firm for a fountain at one of the most prestigious hotels in downtown Chicago. There was an existing bitumen elastomeric on the fountain. The cost for removal would have been exceedingly high, so the firm developed an overcoating option and conducted a proof of concept. Here, vapor blasting lightly abrades the existing coating.

As you can imagine, I started coughing uncontrollably. She was monitoring our ascent for both of us and I was fighting off the panic, which was creeping over me and which I knew could kill us both.

As my coughing slowly subsided, I was able to take one short sip of air when she ripped the regulator out of my mouth. I had not been paying attention to the time, or her pleas for the regulator.

The panic I had fought off reappeared as I waited patiently for her to finish her two breaths and hand the regulator back to me.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with anything?

Well, it has to do with managing risk.

The Presence of Risk

This post started after I read an apt question in JPCL, which read as follows:

What criteria should an owner use to determine whether to specify full removal or spot- or zone-repair on a maintenance project?

I started responding to the question and became overwhelmed—the answer is far too complex from a technical perspective. And the real question—the meat of the question—is how one manages risk.

That, my friends, has to do with judgment, which is subjective. It is based on facts and data, but at the end of the day, it’s subjective.

When NASA was in the midst of the Space Shuttle program, arguably the most complex machine ever made, the go/no-go decision was based on data (facts), but the risk was never ever zero. They launched when there was an acceptable level of risk.

Coating was applied to bare exposed concrete and feathered onto existing coating system.

I suspect that most of you reading this blog are beginning to shake your heads in the negative. My advice is: Loosen up your necks—they’re going to get a lot more exercise.

Advising Clients on Risk

I am repeatedly stunned at vendors’ attitudes in advising their clients on technical issues.

I attended a conference a few weeks ago where the owner of a small engineering firm related the following story. He said his firm had inspected an elevated water tank that had been lined roughly 12 years earlier. The coating, in his own words, “looked good”; that is, there was nothing wrong with it. Still, he recommended completely removing it and reapplying a new one. And he honestly thought (so he led me to believe) that advice was in the best interest of his client.

While he believed that, he was wrong. It wasn’t in the best interest of the client—it was in his and his firm’s best interest. He simply didn’t know enough about coatings to advise his client about the risks associated with doing nothing. And, in this case, the risk to leaving the existing coating in place was pretty darn close to zero.

The question about how to touch up a coating system is technically simple—if the existing remaining coating is well adhered, and it makes financial sense, do proper surface prep to the bare and rusted areas and feather in.

Yes, of course there are many other variables (aesthetics, ease of access to the areas, type of material remaining, environmentals, etc.), but those are the basics.

Aversion to Risk

There is an overarching, endemic aversion to risk in our industry which:

  1. Is technically not warranted or justified;
  2. Puts lots and lots and lots of money in some vendors’ pockets; and/or
  3. Is due to a lack of understanding.

I have been on dozens of jobs where I have recommended touchups or leaving coatings in place, when all of the other vendors involved are shaking their heads "no" and pointing out, rightfully, that there are risks.

taped-off areas

Four taped-off areas were set off to evaluate different surface preparations and materials.

Right now, in just these past few weeks in fact, my firm is consulting with a large chemical company that lined the interior of a new concrete trench. The existing coating is failing; while some of it is completely disbonded, much of it remains bonded, though poorly.

The cost to remove and replace would be staggering. The owner asked/directed us to devise a repair plan. So tomorrow I will crawl on my hands and knees (literally) and tap the entire trench, marking off areas that I think need to be removed and areas I believe can stay in place. (I can picture heads shaking “no” already).

In this case, the client is aware of the risk. However, the trench is readily visible and the client understands the need to monitor it. The client also understands that the existing coating may continue to disbond—or it may not.

Every other vendor I have spoken to about this project disagrees with me. The contractor, the various coating companies and other professionals I’ve spoken with universally think it’s wrong.  

But I cannot in good conscience advise my client to completely remove and replace the existing material when there’s a reasonable chance that repair will work.

If I’m wrong, the client’s inspections will catch it, and my client can conduct repairs as required or, at a later date, completely remove and replace. If I’m right, however, the client will save a fortune.

Act in the Interest of Clients

Why am I frequently a voice of one? Because I’m more concerned with my client’s best interest than my own.

While many are overly concerned with CYA (and, coincidentally, putting more of their client’s money in their own pockets), I’m more concerned with doing what’s in the best interest of my clients. I also know what I’m doing.

I study, and teach, a martial art closely aligned with what the Samurai practiced. Samurai means “those who serve,” and that’s not only how I practice traditional combat jujitsu, but it’s how I parent, try to be a good husband (coming up on 25 years this Memorial Day) and how I run my business.

I took a risk when I sprinted to the fin of my diving buddy. But I made a mistake. I forgot to press the purge valve and it very nearly cost me my life.

That lesson taught me a great many things, one of which is straight from the most successful investor in the world, Warren Buffett: “Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.”

While I know what I’m doing, at some point, I will make a mistake. It is inevitable. However, we cannot in good conscience have our knee-jerk response to every corrosion mitigation issue be, “blast it off and recoat it.”

It’s not in the best interest of the client, and it’s not ethically correct unless it is absolutely technically justified.


Warren Brand

Warren Brand’s coatings career has ranged from entry-level field painting to the presidency of two successful companies. Over nearly three decades, he has project-managed thousands of coating installations and developed specs for thousands of paint and coating applications. NACE Level 3 and SSPC PCS certified, Brand, an MBA and martial-arts instructor, now heads Chicago Corrosion Group, a leading coatings consultancy. Contact Warren.



Tagged categories: Coating Materials; Consultants; NACE; Protective Coating Specialist (PCS); Protective coatings; Specification writing; SSPC; Asia Pacific; Coating Application; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America; Maintenance coating work; North America; Paint and coatings removal; Spot repair

Comment from Gurudas Saha, (5/23/2016, 2:15 PM)

It is a wise decision to touch up the affected areas if the overall coating condition is mostly intact. This has to be decided by initial through inspections. For coating very large areas like maintenance coating of several offshore platforms the touch up specification saves lot of money and tine too.

Comment from peter gibson, (5/26/2016, 3:55 PM)

Gurudas.brilliant assessment!

Comment from Eric Swanson, (6/8/2016, 9:32 AM)

I love it Warren! In the defense of the 'head shakers' out there, it's not always that they are more interested in themselves or putting more money in their pockets. And, I'm not suggesting that you meant that to be the case 100% of the time just because you didn't cover every possibility in a blog But, I do think the discussion has merit to mention another prevailing, overarching, and endemic aversion. That, my friend, is the aversion to taking responsibility for one's self and the actions of said self. Yep, I call it 'Lackofresponsibilityitus'. Our nation is suffering from it. Our industry is suffering from it. And, that is why so many specifiers make decisions that take their personal risk out of the equation. I think we've all had that customer at some point who 'forgot' that they agreed to the 'cheap fix' in exchange for assuming some risk. If the specifier is not VERY careful to spell out the risk in writing and get it signed by the owner, the owner may ‘forget’. If the ‘cheap fix’ doesn’t work the owner may either hold the specifiers feet to the fire to do the ‘expensive fix’ or may simply seek to damage his reputation. Either way, unless very careful, the specifier is also assuming risk due to the rise of the affliction of ‘Lackofresponsibilityitus’.

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