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Improving process safety in the energy industry

08 September 2011

Recent incidents at offshore installations, and petroleum refineries and storage facilities in various parts of the world have highlighted the increasing importance of effective process safety management.

In addition to the immediate human, environmental, financial and reputational costs of these incidents, they inevitably lead to growing scrutiny of major accident hazard (MAH) industries from regulators and governments. They have also caused some institutional investors to question the security of their investments. Maintaining future integrity of the business through robust process safety management is a critical part of operational activities.

Process safety is a blend of engineering and management skills focused on preventing catastrophic accidents and near hits, particularly structural collapse, explosions, fires and damaging releases associated with a loss of containment of energy or dangerous substances such as chemicals and petroleum products. This is done through effective leadership, identifying risks, managing those risks through the safety management system (SMS) – taking into account both human and organisational factors that can influence MAHs – and continuous review and improvements.

Each year the Energy Institute (EI) undertakes a focused technical work programme that comprises original independent research and investigations, technical responses to legislation and regulation, workshops and seminars to provide the international energy industry with information and guidance on relevant technical issues. This work is defined by the EI’s Scientific and Technical Committee (STAC) and is supported by the EI’s Technical Partners. The results of this work are made available through technical publications and events for the purpose of disseminating guidance and good industry practice as widely as possible.

The EI’s technical work programme covers health, environment, safety, distribution and marketing, and hydrocarbon management. Each subject area is managed by its own committee and relevant sub-committees and working groups. For example, the EI’s Safety Management Group (SMG) is a committee of safety specialists which aims to continually improve the safety performance of industry, and contribute to responsible and sustainable operations. The SMG oversees a number of committees and working groups, including the EI’s Process Safety Committee, and the EI’s Human and Organisational Factors Committee (HOFCOM). Along with other committees, they produce resources aimed at helping the industry to manage MAHs, by engaging industry and its stakeholders, and supporting them by commissioning studies, providing information and sharing knowledge.

With an increasing focus on effective safety management from governments and regulators, the EI has delivered a raft of new materials to support continuous improvements in process safety at every step of the way.

Developing a systematic approach to managing risk
The EI’s High level framework for process safety management (PSM framework) was produced in collaboration with industry, regulators, trade bodies and insurers. This publication offers a succinct framework, defining the key things that organisations (both large and small) need to get right in order to assure the integrity of their operations. The framework incorporates technical, maintenance, operational, and human and organisational factors, and will assist managers to understand how well they are identifying and managing the significant risks within their organisations.

The PSM framework is the basis for a new web-based tool, launched this year, to help companies identify how well they are meeting the framework expectations. Process safety performance is often measured by time elapsed since the last incident but this is not always an indication that all is well. The real challenge is to anticipate potential risks and take preventative action to minimise incidents in the future. The EI Process Safety Survey (EIPSS) is an online self-assessment tool designed for senior executives and managers in high hazard industries to understand how well these potential risks are being identified and managed. Failure to effectively do this could result in a major incident which may threaten people, environment, reputation, financial performance, and even the very future of the organisation.

The EIPSS service ( is open to organisations operating in all the major hazard industries. The survey is easy to use and can provide both a quick high level overview of a company’s performance, and allow much more detailed analysis. The survey also provides real-time benchmarking against survey participants, against industry norms or, for companies operating multiple sites, internal benchmarking across the organisation.

Managing the risk of human failure
It is often said that 90% of incidents are caused by human failure, and considering people are often required to undertake safety critical tasks (tasks which, if not done or done incorrectly, can cause a MAH), this is not a surprising statistic. Human failure during the performance of safety critical tasks should be proactively managed. Historically, analysis of technical failures in major accident hazard safety reports has dominated over human failures. There are some signs that this is beginning to change with a higher volume of human factors analyses being conducted. Regulators are also responding to public expectations concerning proactive risk management, and are seeking comprehensive analysis of safety critical tasks with their risk appropriately assessed.

To support the industry, the EI published Guidance on human factors safety critical task analysis, which provides a 7-step plan for conducting safety critical task analysis with case study material, supporting practical tools, and examples of good and bad practice. Safety critical task analysis allows an organisation to assess which tasks that can impact process safety, and to build in extra layers of protection to prevent, or allow recovery from, human failures.

To further improve industry’s understanding of key human factors issues, the EI has recently revised its Human Factors briefing notes. This pack of briefing notes has been expanded to cover 20 different themes, including key topics as identified by UK HSE, such as: alarm handling, maintenance, fatigue, safety critical procedures, training and competence, ergonomics, communications, human error and non-compliance, incident and accident analysis, pressure and stress.

The 2011 edition provides succinct guidance on what the company or management can do to address each issue, along with ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ case studies (illustrating both the consequences of an issue and potential solutions). Notably, 15 of the briefing notes also include a simple checklist of ‘yes/no’ questions to help you quickly gauge whether your company has a problem with a particular issue.

Identifying 'early warning' signals of human failure
At the beginning of the year, the EI, Lloyd's Register EMEA and the UK Health & Safety Executive (UK HSE) published a collaborative research report into the use of human and organisational factors performance indicators (PIs) – Human factors performance indicators for the energy and related process industries. It presents a methodology to measure how effectively human and organisational factors are being managed, potentially opening the way to improve process safety.

Identifying and measuring PIs can help companies establish the areas in which they should proactively manage the factors that affect performance before it becomes a problem, demonstrating the appropriate levels of control to stakeholders such as regulators and insurers.

There have been big improvements in asset quality and management systems over the past decade, leaving human and organisational factors as the next area where significant advances in workplace safety can still be achieved. Measuring and improving the management of human and organisational factors, particularly concerning how the workforce interacts with high-risk assets, can therefore have a significant impact on process safety management.

This is the first time a set of PIs, supported by a transparent methodology aligned with UK HSE guidance, has been made available to help companies to manage the human aspects of safety more effectively. The report provides a framework for gathering such information, how it is used, and, more importantly, for turning that information into action with a goal of better managing the human contribution to process safety.

Managing health and fitness
Having a healthy and fit workforce is recognised in the PSM framework as important in being able to safely carry out the work required, taking in account the physical duties involved.

Health surveillance is an integral part of risk management and an important tool in meeting employer responsibilities. A good health surveillance programme should outline a set of procedures to detect the early signs of work-related health changes that could indicate permanent damage to the individual’s wellbeing. This programme may include specific medical surveillance by health professionals or biological monitoring to measure and assess both uptake and/or the effects of exposure to certain environments.

Guidance on health surveillance outlines all stages of health surveillance and also includes example programmes, covering all working environments involving high temperatures, noise, hand-arm vibration, asbestos, mercury, benzene, carcinogens, lead, ionising radiation and other irritants.

The EI has also published fitness standards including A recommended fitness standard for the oil and gas industry. This provides fitness standards for completing various types of physically intensive tasks, such as stair and ladder climbing, manual handling and valve turning.

Encouraging continuous workforce involvement in safety
It is generally accepted that engagement with the workforce can lead to safer workplaces as staff become more aware of and involved in mitigating health and safety issues. Workforce involvement (WFI) in safety can also enable the company to monitor and improve its SMS.

With good WFI, staff, including contractors, are encouraged to take part in the decision making process about managing health and safety in the workplace, however, achieving good WFI requires planned and sustained effort. To support safety managers and leaders in their efforts to implement effective WFI programmes, the EI has developed a series of posters to encourage colleagues to contribute to safety in the workplace.

This poster pack can be used as part of a wider WFI campaign and these resources are supported by Guidance on running a WFI campaign and using the WFI poster pack to help in proactive health and safety management. The posters tackle a number of themes, such as: What stops you from communicating safety issues? What if you are the only person in your team who sees the risk? and What ideas do you have to improve safety? The posters are designed to challenge general perceptions and provoke discussion amongst workers. To support the sharing of ideas, the series also includes space to capture comments to contribute to WFI schemes.

Working in often complex and technically challenging environments, the international energy industry is committed to tackling process safety issues – one way this is achieved is through the EI technical work programme. Whilst this portfolio of work is not exhaustive, these resources are designed to be integrated as part of the wider safety assessment toolbox. Many of these materials are free to download. For the full range of EI technical publications, please visit:

The Energy Institute (EI) is the leading chartered professional membership body for the international energy industry, responsible for the development and dissemination of knowledge, skills and good practice, working towards a safe, secure and sustainable energy system. Delivering professionalism and good practice, the EI addresses the depth and breadth of energy in all its forms and applications, providing a scientific and technical bank of knowledge for industry.

Further reading
High Level Framework for Process Safety Management (PSM framework)
Guidance on human factors safety critical task analysis
Human factors briefing notes
Human factors performance indicators for the energy and related process industries
Guidance on health surveillance
A recommended fitness standard for the oil and gas industry
Guidance on running a WFI campaign and using the WFI poster pack

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