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Improving process safety culture – what’s required?

Author : Dr. Andrew Fowler, Sigma-HSE

04 August 2021

Much of the emphasis on the subject of ‘process safety culture’ originates from the Buncefield and Texas City incidents that occurred in 2005. Both incidents resulted in significant fires and explosions that had repercussions industry wide. In the decades since those events occurred, there’s been an increased emphasis on the subject of process safety and safety culture.

The aftermath of the 2005 Texas City explosion – Image: US CSB
The aftermath of the 2005 Texas City explosion – Image: US CSB

(Click here to view article in the digital edition)

The Centre for Chemical Process Safety defines process safety as a ‘blend of engineering and management skills focussed on preventing major catastrophic accidents such as fires, explosions and toxic releases’ – all of which have the potential to cause significant harm to humans, the environment and businesses.

Safety culture, as defined by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, is the “product of the individual and group values, attitudes, competencies and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation’s health and safety programmes.” This definition can often be simplified with the answer relating to one question: ‘What happens in our business when no one is watching?’

The keywording in the HSE’s definition is that culture is a product of both individual and organisational attitudes and behaviours. So, if an organisation wishes to develop a good process safety culture, then it needs to ensure that the organisation and its employees, behave in an appropriate manner.

An important factor, that is often overlooked, is that the individuals of an organisation must be fully aware of the process safety standards. Where process safety is concerned (preventing fires and explosions etc.), certain tasks must be completed correctly every time that it is undertaken.

Humans generally tend to comply with requirements if they understand and agree with their necessity. The problem for organisations, however, is that attitudes and behaviours are outputs.

Instead, there should be a focus on inputs to help achieve any necessary organisational attitude and behaviours. The inputs required are threefold:

1. Targets & Objectives

2. Policies & Procedures

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

3. Coaching & Mentoring

Targets & Objectives

The first of the inputs revolves around targets and objectives. Organisations should therefore ask themselves if they have clear, achievable targets and objectives for improving process safety and safety culture. These targets and objectives need to be both believable and attainable.

If people believe in both the purpose and the ultimate goal of a target, then their behaviour will change.

As an example, just consider a health improvement app based on completing a specific number of steps per day. The app states that if we do a certain number of steps each day we will eventually be fitter and healthier. You then monitor your progress each day and you will consciously change your behaviour to achieve the set target. Small behaviours change. Rather than settling down after dinner to relax, you check the number of steps or get a reminder that your steps are yet to be reached, and if your target is not met, then you take the dog for a walk.

Policies & Procedures

Policies and procedures set the standard requirements for an organisation. Good policies focus on the 5W’s – What, When, Where, Who and Why. Procedures, on the other hand, tend to focus on the How. The HAZOP procedure, for example, will instruct us on how to do a HAZOP. Alternatively, a risk assessment policy will consider, through the 5W’s, the wider picture. This will include all the available risk assessment tools to be used, when they should be used, by whom, and importantly why. Again, we as humans function better if we understand the reasons why something is being done.

Having policies and procedures is, in a sense, easy. Having policies and procedures that people understand, use, follow and implement is difficult.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

When undertaking process safety management audits for organisations, finding a procedure can be a long drawn-out process, but once found, employees can be surprised at some of the steps outlined in a particular procedure. This, therefore, indicates that people spend little time getting to know the content of an organisations policies and procedures. When a near miss or incident is investigated, how many times do we find that procedures have not been followed? Often, the results are incorrect procedures that were not followed, could not have been followed and, more generally, because an interpretation of procedure was required.

Other aspects of an organisation may prevent employees from correctly following policies and procedures. Many organisations pride themselves on being responsive to a client and the elements of a process safety management system (the policies and procedures) are essentially designed to make sure that an organisation maintains a safe working environment. Examples of this will include hazard identification exercises (e.g. HAZOP, LOPA etc) and the Management of Change. Practitioners across the sector will understand that quick answers from these elements do not happen.

As an example, a business may have told a client that they can have a new product manufactured within 3 months. But, is the reality of ensuring that all the hurdles that have been created and implemented for a new process, set by organisational policies and procedures, achievable within that set time frame? Are the sales and business development departments aware of these particular issues? With a well structured organisational culture, they will be. All too often, a new product can be delivered within the set time frame, but many of the necessary steps required by the policies and procedures are missed.

One real-life example, from my career, occurred as a company undertook a 3-week maintenance shutdown which had taken one year to plan. The plant was planned to restart operations on a Monday. On the preceding Friday afternoon, the plant was instructed that the maintenance had finished early, and the plant could be started up on Saturday. Normally, in this situation, everyone is congratulated and bonuses are paid out. But, with this particular case, an investigation was instigated over the weekend to find out why the project was completed early – after all, this took one year to plan and the required shutdown time was 3 weeks.

The investigation found that the maintenance had been done correctly. When required equipment was needed to complete a specific job, it was discovered that they were already present and just waiting to be used. It was these efficiencies that became apparent and resulted in the tasks being completed ahead of schedule.

What would happen in your organisation in similar circumstances?

Coaching & Mentoring

The third, and arguably most important input, is coaching and mentoring. At this stage, the awareness and understanding of an organisations standards should be set and enforced. This requires both time and effort to be completed successfully, but ultimately, everyone in the business has to be able to coach and mentor.

Dr. Andrew Fowler, Sigma-HSE
Dr. Andrew Fowler, Sigma-HSE

As in life, some people will naturally be better coaches and mentors than others, but the knowledge and attitude it takes to coach and mentor should be present across the organisation. As seen across the sector, the above can be achieved by undertaking ‘safety observations’. Individuals are tasked with making observations and probing awareness of others. A target or objective set by an organisation could be a set amount of safety observations undertaken each month.

An issue that arises with such exercises, however, is in the understanding of what is trying to be achieved. Process safety requires organisations to be in continual improvement mode – always looking for improvements to be made.

When undertaking safety observations in practice, we tend to search for somebody doing something incorrectly, and the resulting discussion then becomes a one-way exercise. If we are doing safety observations with the objective of improving organisational culture, we should probe the individuals’ awareness and understanding even when correct practices are being done. This generates a two-way conversation that involves listening and thinking, and ultimately, both parties learn. If this approach is used, organisations will quickly generate a structured culture. Following these discussions, everyone should benefit, and improvements can then be made to create a safer working environment.

The key behaviour required for a good process safety culture is the continual improvement mode mindset. From the very top-down, everyone in an organisation should always try to seek out problems, because problems can be solved, and improvements can be made. Ultimately, the problems you cannot see cannot be improved.

In conclusion, does everyone coming to work on your site every day chant the mantra ‘I must find a problem today? I will not be happy unless a find a problem – something that needs to be fixed.’ Is this what your employees do?  Is this what your managers do and require of others? Is this what those at the top of your organisation do? Is this your organisation?

About the author:

Dr. Andrew Fowler is currently Technical & Operations Director at Sigma-HSE based in Winchester – a recognised process safety consultancy and hazardous materials testing facility. Prior to joining Sigma-HSE, he spent 10 years in the chemical manufacturing industry, 17 years as a Process Safety Specialist Inspector with the UK HSE, and 12 years as the Technical Director at a process safety consultancy.


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