Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

A Soft Systems Methodology Approach to Occupational Cancer Control Problem: a Case Study of the Ministry of Petroleum of Iran

  • 494 Accesses

  • 2 Citations


Petroleum industries of Iran offer some of the best job opportunities within Iranian labor market. However, due to the attributes of the chemicals used in these industries, their staffs are exposed to various risk factors of several chronic diseases. Such exposures might lead to cancer incidence after a decade or two. The Ministry of Petroleum (MoP) runs an organization, namely Petroleum Industry Health Organization (PIHO), which is responsible for the health insurance of the personnel working in Petroleum industries. PIHO and Health, Safety & Environment (HSE) units play fundamental roles in providing the employees with health services during their professional life and retirement period. Yet, these organizations still do not have a system to specify occupational cancer control mechanisms at the MoP. The negative influences of cancer on patients suffering from it as well as its heavy costs of treatment have forced MoP to put measures of coping with this chronic disease in the first priority. This paper aims to define the structure and design a framework for MoP’s occupational cancer control problem as the first step for improving the described situation. Given the presence of various stakeholders and actors, and the wide range of complexities of this problematic situation, we have adopted Soft System Methodology (SSM). We have reached an agreement with the problem owners on a rich picture, CATWOE analysis, root definition and a conceptual model for the way this situation could improve within real world circumstances. The results were obtained through various sessions with practitioner from different departments of MoP, while the conflict of interests was common.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6


  1. 1.

    CAS Registry Numbers are unique numerical identifiers assigned by the Chemical Abstracts Service and the most authoritative collection of disclosed chemical substance information, containing more than 72 million substances

  2. 2.

    CRC is affiliated to Tehran University of Medical Sciences (TUMS) and an affiliate of Cancer Institute of Iran.


  1. Ackermann F et al (2014) Special issue on problem structuring research and practice. EURO J Decis Process 2(3–4):165–172

  2. Bell S, Morse S (2013) How people use rich pictures to help them think and act. Syst Pract Action Res 26(4):331–348

  3. Bell JG et al (1995) A systematic approach to health surveillance in the workplace. Occup Med 45(6):305–310

  4. Bergvall-Kareborn B et al (2004) Basic principles of SSM modeling: an examination of CATWOE from a soft perspective. Syst Pract Action Res 17(2):55–73

  5. Bolt HM (2002) Occupational versus environmental and lifestyle exposures of children and adolescents in the European Union. Toxicol Lett 127(1–3):121–126

  6. Boogaard PJ et al (2012) A consistent and transparent approach for calculation of derived no-effect levels (DNELs) for petroleum substances. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol 62(1):85–98

  7. Brooke D et al (2005) International review of surveillance and control of workplace exposures. Australia, Reported to the New Zealand National Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Committee (NOHSAC) & The Office of the Australian Safety & Compensation Council (OASCC) by VIOSH Australia at the University of Ballarat

  8. Checkland P (1999) Systems thinking, systems practice. Wiley, Chichester

  9. Checkland P (2000) Soft systems methodology: a thirty year retrospective. Syst Res Behav Sci 17:S11–S58

  10. Checkland P, Davies L (1986) The use of the term ‘weltanschauung’ in soft systems methodology. J Appl Syst Anal 13:109–115

  11. Checkland P, Poulter J (2006) Learning for action: a short definitive account of soft systems methodology and its use for practitioners, teachers and students. Wiley, Chichester

  12. Checkland P, Scholes J (1990) Soft systems meyhodology in action. Wiley, Chichester

  13. Checkland P, Winter M (2006) Process and content: two ways of using SSM. J Oper Res Soc 57:1435–1441

  14. Deschamps F et al (2006) Estimates of work-related cancers in workers exposed to carcinogens. Occup Med 56:204–209

  15. Fine LJ (1999) Surveillance and occupational health. Int J Occup Environ Health 5(1):26–29

  16. Gaffney SH et al (2010) Occupational exposure to benzene at the ExxonMobil refinery in Beaumont, TX (1976–2007). Int J Hyg Environ Health 213(4):285–301

  17. Gardner R (2003) Overview and characteristics of some occupational exposures and health risks on offshore oil and gas installations. Ann Occup Hyg 47(3):201–210

  18. Glass DC et al (2000) Retrospective exposure assessment for benzene in the Australian petroleum Industr. Ann Occup Hyg 44(4):301–320

  19. Hanafizadeh P, Vali Zadeh R (2014) Vendor selection using soft thinking approach: a case study of National Iranian South Oil Company. Syst Pract Action Res:1–27

  20. Horn P (2000) Using rich pictures in information systems teaching. 1st international conference on systems thinking in management. Geelong, Australia

  21. International Organization for Standardization (2007) ISO 31000:2007 Risk management — Principles and guidelines

  22. Jensen OM et al (1991) Cancer registration: princples and methods. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Scientific Publication No. 95, Lyon

  23. Kamal A et al (2012) Chemical exposure in occupational settings and related health risks: a neglected area of research in Pakistan. Environ Toxicol Pharmacol 34:46–58

  24. Kauppinen T et al (2009) Construction of job-exposure matrices for the Nordic occupational cancer study (NOCCA). Acta Oncol 48(5):791–800

  25. Kelly GC et al (2012) Malaria elimination: moving forward with spatial decision support systems. Trends Parasitol 28(7):297–304

  26. LaMontagne A et al (2002) Exposure databases and exposure surveillance: promise and practice. Am Ind Hyg Assoc J 63(2):205–212

  27. Lincoln JM et al (2012) Occupational fatalities in Alaska: two decades of progress, 1990–1999 and 2000–2009. J Saf Res 44(1):105–10

  28. Malik N et al (2010) Role of hazard control measures in occupational health and safety in the textile industry of Pakistan. Pak J Agric Sci 47:72–76

  29. Mannetje A, Kromhout H (2003) The use of occupation and industry classifications in general population studies. Int J Epidemiol 32(3):419–428

  30. Maroni M et al (1999) Risk assessment and management of occupational exposure to pesticides. Toxicol Lett 107:145–153

  31. Martin JM et al (1991) Surveillance of occupational risks using job-exposure matrices. Methods Inf Med 30(2):132–137

  32. Mingers J (2000) An idea ahead of its time: the history and development of soft systems methodology. Syst Pract Action Res 13:733–756

  33. Mingers J (2011a) Soft OR comes of age—but not everywhere! Omega 39(6):729–741

  34. Mingers J (2011b) Soft OR comes of age — but not everywhere! Omega 39:729–741

  35. Mingers J, Brocklesby J (1997) Multimethodology: towards a framework for mixing methodologies. Omega 25(5):489–509

  36. Mingers J, Rosenhead J (2004) Problem structuring methods in action. Eur J Oper Res 152:530–554

  37. Mingers J et al (2009) Using SSM to structure the identification of inputs and outputs in DEA. J Oper Res Soc 60(2):168–179

  38. Moon B (1996) Epidemiology of occupational cancer. Occup Med 11:467–485

  39. Paucar-Caceres A (2009) Measuring the performance of a research strategic plan system using the soft systems Methodology’s three ‘Es’ and the viable system Model’s indices of achievement. Syst Pract Action Res 22(6):445–462

  40. Paucar-Caceres A (2010) Mapping the changes in management science: a review of `soft' OR/MS articles published in omega (1973–2008). Omega 38:46–56

  41. Peragallo MS et al (2011) Evaluation of cancer surveillance completeness among the Italian army personnel, by capture–recapture methodology. Cancer Epidemiol 35:132–138

  42. Peters S et al (2012) Development of an exposure measurement database on five lung carcinogens (ExpoSYN) for quantitative retrospective occupational exposure assessment. Annu Occup Hyg 56(1):70–79

  43. Pukkala PE et al (2009) Occupation and cancer – follow-up of 15 million people in five Nordic countries. Acta Oncol 48(5):646–790

  44. Reed JV, Harcourt AK (1941) The essentials of occupational diseases. Springfield, Ill., Baltimore, Md., C.C. Thomas

  45. Schipper JD et al (2012) A knowledge-based clinical toxicology consultant for diagnosing single exposures. Artif Intell Med 55:87–95

  46. Simon B et al (2016) Rich pictures: encouraging resilient communities; Earthscan tools for community planning. Routledge, London

  47. Smith TD, DeJoy DM (2012) Occupational injury in America: an analysis of risk factors using data from the general social survey (GSS). J Saf Res 43:67–74

  48. Tabershaw Occupational Medicine Associates. (1979) Job code classification system: Part 1—Petroleum refineries and selected petrochemical operations. Washington, API

  49. Tajino A et al (2005) Beyond needs analysis: soft systems methodology for meaningful collaboration in EAP course design. J Engl Acad Purp 4(1):27–43

  50. Teutsch SM, Thacker SB (1995) Planning a public health surveillance system. Epidemiol Bull 16(1):1–6

  51. Tompa A et al (2005) Risk management among benzene-exposed oil refinery workers. Int J Hyg Environ Health 208(6):509–516

  52. Torlak NG, Müceldili B (2014) Soft systems methodology in action: the example of a private hospital. Syst Pract Action Res 27(4):325–361

  53. Villeneuve PJ et al (2011) Occupational exposure to diesel and gasoline emissions and lung cancer in Canadian men. Environ Res 111(5):727–735

  54. Williams T (2009) Management science in practice. Wiley, Chichester

  55. Winter M (2006) Problem structuring in project management: an application of soft systems methodology (SSM). J Oper Res Soc 57:802–812

  56. Zarei B et al (2013) Road freight information systems: a soft system methodology approach. Int J Logist Syst Manag 14(2):161–178

Download references


We would like to express our sincere gratitude for the kind and generous support by Dr. Kazem Zendehdel (MD PhD) and Dr. Mohammadreza Rouhollahi (MD) from Cancer Research Center and Also Dr. Yahya Khosravi from Alborz University of Medical Sciences who provided us with the medical knowledge required for designing the conceptual model of the problem.

Author information

Correspondence to Ramin Sepehrirad.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Sepehrirad, R., Rajabzadeh, A., Azar, A. et al. A Soft Systems Methodology Approach to Occupational Cancer Control Problem: a Case Study of the Ministry of Petroleum of Iran. Syst Pract Action Res 30, 609–626 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11213-017-9409-8

Download citation


  • Occupational exposure
  • Cancer
  • Problem structuring methods (PSMs)
  • Soft system methodology (SSM)
  • Information systems
  • Conceptual model