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Improving process safety by networking

20 December 2013

In recent years, there have been too many high profile, catastrophic process safety incidents.  The causes might well be diverse but the consequences are obvious.  Even titans of industry such as BP find themselves straining under the burden of financial damages and reputational ruin as the result of process safety incidents. Christian Jochum and Theo Reindorp of the European Process Safety Centre look at the benefits organisations such as theirs can bring to the increasingly pressured

Have you ever experienced a major process safety incident in your company?  Hopefully not.  The fact is major incidents per company have a low statistical probability.  And this is not by chance.  Since the early (and very dangerous) days of the chemical industry, process safety experts have been working hard to reduce the chances of major incidents.  Process safety is now a highly developed science and engineering discipline that allows us to keep serious risks under control.  But what happens if a company doesn't have the necessary process safety expertise or doesn't apply it correctly?  Then you are relying on luck as the final safety barrier, and that is a very serious situation.

Has the process safety professional become a victim of his or her own success?  Have we over the years managed so well to reduce the risks that process safety has become invisible to the point that it no longer gets the attention it needs to be effective?  Is process safety forgotten until a major incident occurs and expertise must be hastily re-established?  Possibly all of these things, but there are other reasons too.  Companies have been split up and sold on. In these cases sometimes process safety expertise stays, and sometimes it moves on. Ownership is no longer always with experienced, time served, technically based companies but rather with diversified investment enterprises that may not have the background and experience.

The pool of expertise can become fragmented, detached and too limited to be effective, maybe even forgotten completely.  And of course the drive for continual cost reduction is unceasing in these difficult times.  In some cases, it would appear that the expertise has indeed disappeared.  Recruitment is a challenge and there is little evidence that this problem will be resolved over the short term: process safety is but a minor component of current academic programs. The problem of doing process safety well is made harder by its interdisciplinary nature.  Not only is your process potentially unique from a safety point of view, achieving good process safety will be influenced by its chemistry, mechanical and electrical engineering, human factors, IT, company management systems, local and international law.  On top of all of this, we must also understand that the public is increasingly intolerant of industrial disasters, so the expected standard is being raised all the time.

Networks are a potential solution to the problems of thinly spread resource, staying up to date and finding new process safety solutions.  But to be effective, all parties involved must make a meaningful contribution.  An atmosphere of openness and trust must be created.  Such networks do not happen by themselves and need careful establishment, structure and day-to-day running.  They need a backbone that has expertise, contacts and resource that can get the necessary basic work done without overburdening a time-poor membership.

Such networks do exist. In 1985, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers founded the Centre for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) and in 1992, the European Federation of Chemical Engineers set up the European Process Safety Centre (EPSC). EPSC is a not-for-profit organisation, funded mainly by companies from the chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical and other major hazard industries, insurers, service providers, consultants and research institutes. It is hosted by the Institution of Chemical Engineers in Rugby, UK. Although most of its presently 37 full and 9 associate members are acting globally, EPSC`s main focus is Europe with its specific legal and cultural environment. On the other hand, global cooperation is sought wherever it helps to improve process safety.

The EPSC has a permanent staff, many of whom are recognised experts in the field of process safety.  The EPSC is committed to helping all its members gain access to up to date, relevant process safety expertise as well as helping its membership prepare for those ever- higher safety performance demands that are being placed on our companies.

For its members, the EPSC offers unique opportunities. First and foremost, it provides an established process safety network with expertise in all relevant areas.  Members can address a forum of qualified, trustworthy individuals for specific, often technical questions.  They can participate in professionally-organised working groups on specific subjects either to gain or to share knowledge.  Recent examples include: Corrosion under Insulation, Enhancing Hazard Identification, Risk Acceptance Criteria, Risk Assessment Methods and Global Consistency (Process Safety Management in global companies)

Sometimes a report is considered the most appropriate output.  On other occasions a best practice, booklet or sometimes just an expertise exchange group.  And as a member, you will have the opportunity to decide what future groups work on.

For all its members, the EPSC organises regular events referred to as TSCs.  All members are welcomed to a full programme of presentations on work in progress, participation workshops, guest speakers, updates (legal/technical) and of course the invaluable chance to meet colleagues from other companies and industries.  Occasionally we organise public conferences and might well be able to participate in external activities that we believe effectively further the improvement of process safety.

Improving process safety performance within our own membership is not enough, however. Any major incident hits the whole sector regardless of where it happens. In the current commercial environment, there is an opportunity for EPSC to expand its activity within this objective and widen good practice in Process Safety Management. Traditionally, EPSC addressed the whole process safety community by organising or co-organising public conferences and workshops. Recently it launched a programme to make its reports publicly available, too. In addition, important results of the EPSC's activities contribute towards deliberations at governmental and EU level, for example in EU Technical Working Groups and the Seveso Expert Group.

At the EPSC, we realise that process safety is moving into a new era.  The performance expectations are higher than ever and the desire to eliminate major incidents is reaching fever pitch.  Time and resources are as scarce as ever.  Modest incremental improvement will not turn the tide of bad publicity and mistrust the industry feels in many parts of the world.  The EPSC offers (and continues to develop) tools and materials for senior decision makers in industry to help address the shortcomings at the top of the organisation so often identified during investigations of recent major incidents. 

Major process safety incidents occur infrequently per company but as an industry, we have to continue to strive for substantial improvements.  Tolerance of such catastrophic events is limited and will continue to reduce, threatening the viability of your business if something does happen.  An effective network is crucial to success and that is as true for process safety as it is for other aspects of business.  Through the EPSC, you can work together with peers on process safety, stay ahead of developments, represent the ambitions of your company at governmental level and above all contribute actively to further improving the process safety performance for the whole industry. 

If you would like to join, please contact Lee Allford (lallford-epsc@icheme.org) or visit www.epsc.org where you will also find various process safety resources freely available.
 


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