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BP Cooper River: Making it personal

18 December 2012

Located within 30 kilometres (20 miles) of Charleston in South Carolina, BP Cooper River is one of three US sites in BP’s petrochemicals portfolio and has become a role model within the group for the way it has made safety and risk management relevant for the frontline. Amanda Breen of BP Magazine reports.

Set on the grounds of two former plantations, the 6,000-acre Cooper River site consists of upland habitat, marsh and wetland, with only 500 acres set aside for the operating site
Set on the grounds of two former plantations, the 6,000-acre Cooper River site consists of upland habitat, marsh and wetland, with only 500 acres set aside for the operating site

Looking around the chemical plant, which produces up to 1.3 billion kilograms of purified terephthalic acid (PTA) each year, observant visitors will spot some unexpected details. 

Bright labels on pumps in the three operating units bear individuals’ names, declaring who is responsible for monitoring the good condition of that equipment. With the plant manager’s name on one as well, the standard is set from the top.  

Elsewhere, neatly-painted pipes are colour-coded to signify the materials held within and orderly tool sheds hold the necessary instruments for the plant’s operating technicians to carry out minor repairs. By paying close attention to keeping a tidy ‘house’, the team at Cooper River believe it is easier to identify and manage risk in the plant where potentially hazardous chemicals, such as acetic acid, are processed at high temperatures and under pressure.

“Upholding a high standard of housekeeping means a better detection of potential defects,” says plant manager Mark Fitts, who has spent his entire career at Cooper River, working his way up from mechanical engineer to today’s leadership role. “If manufacturing operations look messy with soiled equipment, people get discouraged; they stop seeing potential risks and the abnormal becomes normal.” 

It is, after all, people who hold the plant’s safety, and consequent success, in their hands. Although industrial processes may seem impersonal, it’s clear that putting the emphasis on people power is what works at Cooper River, located within 30 kilometres (20 miles) of Charleston and one of the three US sites in BP’s petrochemicals portfolio.


Taking its name from the waterway on which it sits, Cooper River made its first shipment of PTA in 1978. But the site has another definition for the acronym PTA that has nothing to do with the white, crystallised powder that emerges, warm, as the finished product from the maze of pipes and reactors. It also stands for People Taking Action. The slogan greets visitors before they even reach the security gates, displayed on the forest-lined roadside, next to an announcement on this month’s safety focus. However, signs at an entrance mean nothing if they’re not supported by what’s happening behind the scenes.  

Inside the gates, you don’t have to look far before you spot an object or a surface with somebody’s name or photograph on it. Names and faces of staff and their families appear on posters stuck to office doors, as a reminder of why people are working safely. For those who have notched up 30 years of employment at the former Amoco site, their names are engraved in bricks forming the steps up to the main entrance. 

These roll-calls create a sense of community, highlighting that everyone has a part to play, whether they are on the frontline of operations, in the laboratory or in the office building. “At Cooper River, we must engage and involve people in doing what I call ‘the basics’ in an excellent way,” says Fitts.


Those ‘basics’ are the fundamentals of operations that the plant has identified as the most critical process safety and operational skills required to deliver BP’s operating management system (OMS), which sets out common global standards, principles and practices in the four areas of plant, people, performance and processes. Of 200 BP staff onsite, some 110 are frontline operators and technicians. Defining priority skills, such as housekeeping, shift handover and emergency drills, has been the way to bring OMS to life for the teams and individuals working in, and supporting, the frontline.


But these critical safety and operational skills – which encompass the common causes of catastrophic industrial failures – are not just for operators to focus their attention on; according to Fitts, they touch everyone onsite. “Each person can connect with many of our fundamentals and is able to recognise their piece in the whole – whether that comes under developing effective training and procedures or maintaining the safe design and permit limits of plant equipment, what we call the operating envelopes.  

Pipes are colour-coded to signify the materials held within
Pipes are colour-coded to signify the materials held within

“Our office administrators play a significant role in supporting OMS and the fundamentals, through maintaining written procedures, supporting training and the core systems in our systematic processes. They are extremely valuable to the quality and integrity of these systems and they can see where they fit in to what we’re doing. People can be very innovative when they can plug into a vision and that’s when you can achieve extraordinary things.” 

By involving staff and contractors at every level, from every corner and shift on the plant, with a vision of excellence in manufacturing and safety, the results are tangible. Cooper River has a strong record in safety and compliance; the site had no reportable process safety events in 2011. It also has a clean record on environmental performance, with no permit excursions last year, and in personal safety, the plant has passed the four million hours milestone without a case requiring a day away from work. 

Spreading a clear, consistent safety message through individuals talking to one another and regular training is making such achievements possible. Every three months, all staff attend a full day’s safety workshop to focus on the fundamentals and core technical skills. “We have operations and maintenance teams in the same room together for training so they can talk about what works for them.  

“Each person takes a day off from their shift to train – and we don’t consider our engineering or support staff to be any different, so they come along too,” says Fitts, who teaches some sessions himself due to his technical background. 

“It’s a tremendous benefit as it gives me the opportunity to speak to every member of the team to reinforce our vision and strategy.” 

Norva Myles, BP Behaviour Safety Specialist
Norva Myles, BP Behaviour Safety Specialist

Training on a three-monthly basis would not, in itself, be enough to keep safety and systematic operating at the forefront of people’s minds. That’s why the plant has an individual in every team, 35 in total, who holds monthly conversations with their peers about that month’s safety topic. These HSSE champions pass on the messages face-to-face, avoiding the use of email when not everyone has or needs a computer for their job.  

“Our champions are our communicators, that’s the best name I can give to them,” says Norva Myles, behaviour safety specialist, who coordinates Cooper River’s employee safety team. “The theme of the month might be personal protective equipment, or hazard communication, and the champions go out to their groups to have that discussion, then bring back any questions or feedback every two weeks.  

“We also go out into the plant for an audit every month, that’s how we know if everyone gets it. By making this a personal process, face-to-face, people feel like they have a part to play and it gives them an opportunity to share their experiences with one another.” 

Speaking up about what’s working – and what’s not – does not always come as second nature, though. That’s why everyone, including contractors, is required to attend an ‘intervention training’ programme to help them speak up and step in if they notice anything of concern. It sounds rather dramatic to an outsider, but it’s aimed at making people feel comfortable to speak what’s on their mind. 

“This is about teaching that ‘it’s the way we do things because we care’,” says Myles. “There’s a way to say things, so another person receives it and doesn’t feel harassed. In role play scenarios, we make it clear that our mantra should be ‘it’s okay for you to stop me if something isn’t right, and I can do the same for you’.” 

Process safety management coordinator Irwin Lewis
Process safety management coordinator Irwin Lewis

The plant’s Good Find card programme, introduced in 2005, gives employees the opportunity to put this ‘speak-up’ philosophy into action. It is a tool encouraging colleagues to record any safety issues observed around the site. Staff then fill out the card – either by hand or online – and detail the actions they have taken. 

There is an incentive behind the initiative, as the employee safety team monitors the issues raised and picks the ‘best’ entries each month. Individuals are presented with gift certificates, while teams where all members participate by submitting at least one card in a month are invited to lunch with the plant manager. In the meantime, the cards’ details are entered into a database to share across the plant and identify any emerging trends. 

In the production units, safety messages are reiterated on a daily basis. Process safety management coordinator Irwin Lewis is a member of the team which compiles, researches and conducts training around the critical safety and operational skills in Unit 2. “We’re getting a lot of positive feedback as the guys are seeing the results of their efforts,” says the former technician, who has 29 years’ experience at the plant. 

“As an example, we run tag or emergency drills on Fridays, where we simulate an abnormal event, such as loss of power. I feel passionate about these drills because I know how much they can help to prepare people to respond.”

When operators feel a sense of ownership for certain areas of the plant, such as the pumps that bear their names, that brings a sense of responsibility, too, according to Lewis. “It works really well because everyone has a degree of pride and nobody wants their area to look poor in comparison to others. It also translates into leadership and everybody here can display some degree of ownership and responsibility for their equipment.”

The chemical plant produces up to 1.3 billion kilograms of purified terephthalic acid (PTA) each year. PTA is the key raw material for the manufacture of polyester fibre, resin, film, and polyethylene terephtalate (PET)
The chemical plant produces up to 1.3 billion kilograms of purified terephthalic acid (PTA) each year. PTA is the key raw material for the manufacture of polyester fibre, resin, film, and polyethylene terephtalate (PET)

Developing leadership skills, at all levels of Cooper River, is high on the plant manager’s agenda. The 20 members of the site’s extended leadership team are taking part in monthly workshops to hone their skills, based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Leadership Framework. Later in 2012, the same training will be offered across the site to all leaders.  

Sessions focus on everything from ‘sense making’ – how leaders translate a complex idea into straight-forward terms that everyone can understand – to ‘emotional intelligence’ – the attributes such as self-awareness, motivation and empathy that will separate an ordinary leader from an extraordinary one. 

“The importance of simplifying things has been proven again and again,” Fitts says. “If a system or process is complicated, people can’t see where they fit in. Once the organisation understands the vision, there’s a path to follow and it’s vital to hear what people think when making changes to the way they work. As leaders, we sometimes forget that other people do these jobs, so let’s find out what their roadblocks are and have them tell us what needs to be fixed.”

The ‘vision’ for Cooper River and its team is clear: to become a Centre of Excellence for manufacturing and safety. They are also sharing their methods across the company, through BP’s Operations Academy at MIT and the Managing Operations programme. There, other site leaders from the refining and marketing segment, as well as upstream divisions, learn about successful practices at Cooper River that they could apply to their own businesses.

As for the South Carolina petrochemicals manufacturer, although process details and audit methods may be refined, the big picture remains consistent. “The causes of major industrial accidents do not change, only new evidence is added on how they occur and how to prevent them,” Fitts concludes. “So, we stay the course, identifying any gaps and applying continuous improvement, but our message and strategy remain the same.”  

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