Successful process safety - a view from the USA
01 August 2013
John Bresland, the former chairman of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), the principal investigatory body into process plant incidents in the USA, has had a long career in environmental safety. Here he gives the eight essential components of a successful process safety regime in the high hazard industries.
1. Hire the right people and educate people to understand your processes
Make sure those processes are designed to operate in the safest possible way, and that
managers and frontline operators fully understand everything that is involved.
I always found it incongruous that a company would invest billions in a refinery or chemical plant but for part of the time would let it be run by staff without a technical understanding of the processes involved or the complex details of the operation.
That is why labour force education is important. Not training, education. You need to have the highest possible skill levels amongst all of your staff.
2. Ensure leadership is fully committed to process safety
If you’re a senior leader in your company at the executive level, be a role model. Take every opportunity to discuss the importance of process safety to your business. Make sure employees are accountable for their process safety performance. Get out and visit facilities, walk around and emphasise the importance of safety to all your employees. Drop in unannounced, talk to the front line people, find out what they’re thinking. You may be surprised.
For all staff, process safety is the most important knowledge they should have.
3. Never get complacent
Just because you’ve operated safely for 30 years doesn’t mean tomorrow won’t bring a disaster. I hope you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and worry about what could happen in one of your plants.
On December 31 your year is over, you’ve met all your goals for finance, production and safety, what do you do on January 1? Relax? No, you never get complacent.
4. It’s all about details
A chemical plant or an oil refinery is a very complex entity. It requires constant and never-ending attention to detail. Every day, a million details must be correct to ensure the safe operation of your facility. Every little detail needs to be scrutinised or it can become a big problem.
Don’t let deviances in procedures become normal. At the CSB I saw that all too often. So-called small releases or fires can come to be treated as normal occurences if they happen on a regular basis, but someone needs to ask why they are happening so often, and what the consequences might be if the release was larger.
You also have to hold your people accountable for complying with your operating standards.
5. The importance of metrics
It’s always been easy to measure first-aid cases or lost work days, and they have been very effective in reducing the level of personal injuries. But are you measuring and reporting on your process incidents? For example the number of unplanned emissions, leaks or spills? These are the lagging metrics, the ones that tell you what happened in the past. What about the leading indicators, which tell you you’re going in the wrong direction and could be heading towards an incident.
For example are your operating procedures up to date, do you manage both leading and lagging indicators?
6. Managing risk
If someone comes to you and says there is a problem: a piece of equipment is failing and if it fails, there could be a safety or environmental incident. But you have to shut down the process to fix it. If you do that you lose production, and your boss will not be happy. If you’re an oil refinery the price of petrol will go up and the politicians will complain.
So your choice is to shut down and face everyone’s wrath but avoid a safety issue, or keep it going. As a corporation you need to develop a long-term mentality in situations such as these. A shutdown will be over in a day, while a major safety or environmental event could have huge consequences and last a long time.
In the real world it may not be as black and white as that, but when you are faced with that dilemma, I hope you will err on the side of caution. Make sure your employees will also be motivated to do the right thing.
7. Incident response
You also have to ensure your incident response is the best it could be, both inside and outside the plant. Get to know your local emergency responders, train frequently for all eventualities, and suggest managers visit the local fire chief and build relations, so they know you can work together when necessary.
8. Learn from other industries
One example in the US is nuclear power, where after Three Mile Island in 1979, the industry realised it could not afford another similar incident and took radical steps to improve safety. The Institute of Nuclear Power Operators was set up to promote the highest levels of safety in nuclear plants. In the US, similar programmes in chemicals or refining would be very valuable.
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