Process Safety Begins In the Board Room

Senior management should take six important steps.

By Graeme Ellis, ABB Consulting

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The Baker report highlighted the strong link between leadership and culture. Edgar Schein [3] puts this succinctly: “Leaders create cultures by what they systematically pay attention to.”

The U.K.’s Chemical Industries Association has summarized the behaviors expected for effective process safety leadership [4]:

• board champion for process safety, ensuring discussion at all board meetings to review performance and set future priorities;
• communication of process safety policy, stressing the importance set by the board and the role of people at all levels in protecting against major hazards;
• visibility of board-level management, e.g., visiting control rooms, making presentations on major hazard risks;
• use of effective leading and lagging process safety performance indicators (PSPIs) to allow board-level monitoring;
• board-endorsed formalized process safety improvements plan in place for ensuring continuous improvement; and
• outward-looking company and board with cross-industry approach to learning and sharing the lessons from incidents.

A senior manager recognizing a poor process safety culture in the organization should take six steps, which are gleaned from experience gained across high-hazard industries:

Step 1. Understand the approach needed for process safety.

Many senior managers believe “safety” to be under control based on falling injury rates, only to be surprised by a serious fire, explosion or toxic release. Figure 1 can be used to explain to all staff the difference between personal safety and process safety.

Personal safety is related to relatively frequent low-severity events generally associated with the behaviors of individuals. This has been successfully managed in many companies by improved management focus and behavioral safety initiatives.

Process safety relates to serious events involving a loss of containment of hazardous chemicals or a release of energy. These events are rare and usually occur when several layers of protection have failed to prevent the escalation of an initial event. The causes are varied and involve both immediate failings and underlying systems’ shortcomings. Improving process safety performance requires an effective organization to maintain risk control systems and respond to any weaknesses identified.

Step 2. Implement best practice PSM systems.

The key elements of effective PSM systems are well defined in several publications and generally have converged between the U.S. and U.K. These elements have been identified following serious accidents in the process industries. For example, the explosion at Flixborough, U.K., in 1974, which stemmed from failure of a temporary pipe connection between two reactors, led to “management of change” being a key PSM element, with the requirement to carry out an assessment of the potential implications of any change.

The Energy Institute’s PSM framework [5] has 20 elements. Five relate to process safety leadership:

• leadership commitment and responsibility, including process safety policy and performance targets, plus structure and resources to achieve them;
• identification and compliance with regulatory and industry standards, to ensure the requirements of applicable legislation are identified, understood and satisfied;
• employee selection, placement, competency and health assurance, to make certain that current and new personnel can adequately handle their job responsibilities and are fit for work;
• workforce involvement, to align, involve and empower all staff in recognizing and managing process safety hazards; and
• communication with stakeholders, including identifying key stakeholders plus understanding and addressing their issues and concerns.

An effective PSM system should follow good practice requirements but must be tailored to reflect the organization and specific process safety hazards. A large manufacturing site that produces and distributes chlorine will have different procedures than a small facility storing flammable liquids. Senior managers should implement an independent review of the PSM system to identify and prioritize gaps and departures from relevant good practice.

Step 3. Understand process safety risks.

Facilities in the process industries face a number of specific major accident hazard scenarios depending upon the nature of the substances they handle and their processing activities. These are caused by known initiating events such as failure of hardware or control systems, or errors by operating or maintenance staff. Usually, plants rely on several layers of protection to prevent, control and mitigate these scenarios from escalating into a major accident, ensuring the risk has been reduced to an acceptable level.

Senior managers must thoroughly understand the main risk scenarios of the facilities they manage and remain constantly vigilant to complacency toward the risk control systems. The scenarios should be available in safety reports or similar documents such as hazard and operability reports. If this information is not available or is out of date, executives should initiate a thorough review of process safety hazards using competent specialists.

Step 4. Investigate process safety incidents.

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