Many chemical manufacturers are doing excellent work to identify hazards and reinforce safe behaviors. Unfortunately, after a time, safety performance often levels off and improvement seems to reach a plateau.
There are several reasons for this. Traditionally, companies have looked to technology to solve the issues associated with hazardous processes. Yet experience indicates technology by itself isn't a panacea for all problems. A manufacturer can invest significantly in the latest technologies and control systems but whether these work effectively will depend upon manager, supervisor and worker behavior (Figure 1).
One way to move beyond the plateau is by engaging everyone in the safety effort and ensuring ongoing commitment. The independent safety panel that investigated the 2005 BP Texas City Refinery explosion cited a corporate safety culture that tolerated serious and long-standing deviations from good safety practice as a concern (see: "Panel Blasts BP's Safety Practices"). The so-called Baker Panel also emphasized that corporate leadership must drive a process safety culture for it to succeed.
So, as a chemical engineer with operations background, I'd like to share some insights on how to successfully achieve an effective safety culture.
FACTORS IMPACTING SAFETY CULTURE
A company's culture encompasses everything it does, including safety — it's a mindset and a way of being. At the heart of safety culture is process safety, an ethical imperative that calls for all manufacturers to do their utmost to keep employees, partners and surrounding communities safe.
Success in operations usually is quantified in terms of capacity utilization, prevention of unplanned shutdowns and managing operating costs. Some sites — mistakenly — treat the number of personal safety incidents as a measure of process safety ("Safety Statistics Can Get You Into a Scrape"). Much less attention is paid to culture as a measure of success and the influence of culture on performance knowledge retention and operational sustainability.
In general, chemical engineers fully understand that safety and production are inseparable. Yet, we continue to hear about avoidable process incidents that have occurred because production took priority over safety. When we read the investigation reports, we ask ourselves: "Why would anyone do that?" or "What in the world was the business thinking?" However, we often don't recognize similar mistakes we make that could result in incidents.
THE PROCESS SAFETY MYSTIQUE
Many in our industry firmly believe that chemical engineering and, consequently, process safety are complicated areas that only those with sufficient background or training can understand and should address. These specialists are reluctant to share knowledge, which serves to create and maintain a "process safety mystique." Of course, it's true that not everyone in a company is a chemical or other type of engineer. However, limiting access to process safety knowledge and management processes to a few individuals not only makes their lives difficult, but also increases the risk to the organization.