Achieve continuous safety improvement

Enhancing safety performance requires diligence and unrelenting effort. The Independent Safety Review Panel’s recently released report on the safety culture and practices at BP’s U.S. refineries where a March 2005 explosion occurred in Texas City, Texas indicates similar failings are likely elsewhere in the industry. Learn what can be done to enhance continuous safety improvement.

By Angela Summers, SIS-TECH Solutions

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There are many barriers to improvement, including:

  • poor data integrity and quality;
  • inadequate information availability and consistency;
  • lack of broad understanding of facts and procedures;
  • deficient or missing internal practices and procedures;
  • poorly understood compliance expectations;
  • inadequate revision control or notification of changes; and
  • lack of comprehensive training on data, information, procedures and practices.

To overcome these barriers, you must provide personnel with more than just another initiative or mandate for change. Continuous improvement must be part of an organization’s culture, beginning at the highest management level and continuing to the front-line operator. A continuous improvement culture requires that all staff understand the importance of following approved practices and procedures. People should feel that safe and reliable operation is an institutional value and that they won’t lose their jobs or be held back for speaking out. Front-line personnel must believe that continuous improvement is supported by all levels of management. Everyone should understand that employment is conditional on safe work performance.

To succeed, personnel must be aware of the potential risk and be committed to do what’s necessary to maintain and continuously improve operational and mechanical integrity. The path forward encompasses many detailed tasks, but generally includes the following:

  • assign responsibility and hold personnel accountable;
  • audit to ensure practices and procedures are followed;
  • question norms and reduce risk further when practical;
  • integrate business and process safety goals;
  • track performance, address bad actors and celebrate success; and
  • learn and remember.

A corporate responsibility

“Corporate leadership at the highest level is accountable for the safe operation of facilities that use hazardous chemicals. Safety culture is created at the top, and when it fails there, it fails workers far down the line,” states Merritt [1].

An organization’s culture is ultimately driven by what management indicates is important — what’s measured and what’s rewarded. Sustaining safe operation demands a recognition that the direct costs of an incident represent the tip of an iceberg. Hidden from view are the indirect costs and long-term business damages resulting from unsafe operations. When the true cost of an incident is understood, it becomes very clear that being cost effective involves much more than simply today’s budget. Success requires that personnel believe that investment in reducing risk further is encouraged and rewarded.

Market leaders recognize that this investment provides benefits that far outweigh its costs. Operating excellence seeks to prevent incidents because it is good for business and it is the right thing to do.


  1. Merritt, C.W., “Statement on the Release of the BP Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel Report,” U.S. Chemical Safety Board, Washington (Jan 2007).
  2. Reason, J., “Human Error,” Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, U.K. (1990).
  3. Mannan, S., “Lees’ Loss Prevention in the Process Industries,” Vols 1-3, Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, U.K. (2005).
  4. Kletz, T., “Lessons from Disaster: How Organizations Have No Memory and Accidents Recur,” Institution of Chem. Engs., Rugby, U.K. (1993).

Angela Summers is president of SIS-TECH Solutions, LP, Houston, Texas. She recently completed the “Guidelines for Safe and Reliable Instrumented Protective Systems” for AIChE’s Center for Chemical Process Safety. She was the recipient of the 2005 ISA Albert F. Perry Award and is a 2007 inductee into the Process Automation Hall of Fame. E-mail her at

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