Process Safety Begins In the Board Room

Senior management should take six important steps.

By Graeme Ellis, ABB Consulting

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Major accidents such as those at Texas City and Buncefield and in the Gulf of Mexico have highlighted the critical role played by senior managers in the process industries. Effective leadership is essential to develop a positive safety culture that remains constantly vigilant toward process safety risks. (For details on how DuPont and Dow executives have established a strong safety culture in their companies, see “Orchestrate An Effective Safety Culture,”  and “Make Safety Second Nature,” ) The U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has made process safety leadership a key priority for high hazard industries.

This article will explore the leadership failings that contributed to recent major accidents and essential leadership principles, including:

• ensuring senior management actively supports process safety through its investment strategy and focus on the safety culture of the organization;
• reinforcing the importance of safety by personal example;
• thoroughly understanding major accident hazards and key risk control systems;
• investigating process safety incidents and near misses to find the underlying causes;
• developing world-class safety management systems; and
• identifying weaknesses in these systems using targeted performance indicators.

Major accidents with multiple fatalities continue to occur worldwide in the process industries, causing distress to those involved and massive costs to companies. Accidents at Flixborough, U.K., Seveso, Italy, Bhopal India, and Pasadena, Texas, in the 1970s and 1980s led to tighter regulation of the process industries and raised awareness of the key risk control systems needed to prevent such accidents. Recent accidents have increased recognition of the key role of senior managers in ensuring these systems are effectively implemented and remain robust throughout the life of a facility.

Investigation of the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery revealed a series of failings in process safety management (PSM). This prompted a fundamental and independent review of the BP corporate safety culture across its refining operations in the U.S. [1]. As the so-called Baker Panel emphasized, many of the deficiencies it found are not limited to BP. So, other processors certainly should ponder the following noteworthy comments in the report:

• Companies should regularly and thoroughly evaluate their safety culture and performance of their PSM systems.

• Preventing process accidents demands vigilance. People can forget to be afraid.

• BP has not provided effective process safety leadership and has not adequately established process safety as a core value.

• BP mistakenly interpreted improvement in personal injury rates as an indication of acceptable process safety performance.

• Process safety leadership appeared to have suffered as a result of high turnover of refinery plant managers.

• A good process safety culture requires a positive, trusting and open environment.

• BP does not have a designated high-ranking leader for process safety.

• The company did not always ensure that adequate resources were appropriately allocated to support or sustain a high level of process safety performance.

• BP has not demonstrated that it has effectively held executive management accountable for process safety performance.

• The panel found instances of lack of operating discipline, toleration of significant deviations from safe operating practices, and apparent complacency toward serious process safety risks.

In 2005, a massive explosion and fire at a fuel storage terminal in Buncefield, U.K., caused extensive damage. Several layers of protection failed, allowing a gasoline tank to overfill and ultimately resulting in a vapor cloud explosion. The HSE and a cross-industry group carried out a thorough investigation and highlighted leadership failings as a major contributor [2]:

• Management systems relating to tank filling were both deficient and not properly followed, despite having been independently audited.
• A lack of engineering support from head office worsened the pressure on staff.
• The culture made keeping the process operating the primary focus; process safety did not get the required attention, resources or priority.
• The operation lacked clear and positive process safety leadership with board-level involvement that should be at the core of managing a major hazard business.
• What was set out in the safety report and the safety management systems did not reflect what actually went on at the site.
• The management board did not effectively supervise major hazards; it apparently focused primarily on finances.

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