Worker Safety: Stimulate a Sense of Vulnerability

Take seven steps to combat complacency that can compromise process safety.

By Roy E. Sanders, process safety consultant

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Plants with good safety performance often face a problem just because they haven’t suffered significant incidents for a long time. Complacency can develop, undermining the discipline required to maintain safety. We always must remember that safety is not a bankable commodity.

At sites where incidents have occurred, the lessons learned often are forgotten. “… History clearly shows that memory fades with time. Even when lessons learned are passed on — and let’s be honest, that doesn’t always happen — the passage of time leads to memory fade because people change and move on, the real details of the causes and of important factors like design intentions and limitations get forgotten or lost,” notes Judith Hackitt, chair of the U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive [1].

Renowned safety guru the late Trevor Kletz advised: “The major safety problem companies should address is maintaining awareness of incidents. Chemical makers should set up systematic procedures — rather than rely on memory — to recall lessons of the past, lessons for which we have paid a high price in deaths and injuries as well as money [2].”

Hackitt bluntly warns: “Be clear that your role is to create unease, not to provide false (re)assurance. It is essential that we all focus on this need for a culture on constant unease [1].”

Instilling an ongoing sense of unease requires conscientious and continual efforts. To begin with, all site personnel, from managers on down, should study hazard-and-operability and other risk evaluations for the plant to understand the potential dangers. Then, you must regularly remind staff of the type of incidents they could face if they don’t remain alert.

Seven Smart Steps


Fortunately, you can tap a number of valuable resources to help make maintaining unease easier. I suggest seven specific steps:

1. Take advantage of a contrite employee’s offers to help. I only have seen this once but it certainly is worth exploring if you have the right employees and correct safety culture. It could be honed into a very useful tool.

The case I’m familiar with involved a dedicated process operator who worked within the cell room of a chlorine manufacturing plant. This conscientious employee was effective in everything he did. However, some years ago, as required for a brief correction, he cut the feed brine flow to an electrolyzer cell. As I recall the story, he got busy and failed to restore the feed brine. The protective instrumentation was limited and the electrical current heated the cell contents. An expensive explosion occurred but fortunately no one was injured. The operator was disciplined.

The operator regretted the mishap and didn’t want anyone else ever to make such an error. So, he made a point to tell each new operator trainee his story and how to prevent a repeat. This is one very effective way to expose potential vulnerability.

2. Share investigation team case histories with all affected employees — and repeat in refresher training. When a serious incident with wide impact occurs within a complex, most organizations share the details with those in engineering, operations, maintenance and pertinent support groups. Many also share a near-miss that provides a learning opportunity. Often, however, the organization doesn’t have an effective way to repeat the message when new employees arrive or when veterans are reassigned.

Those organizations with a good safety culture educate new faces about these incidents and repeat the learnings regularly as a refresher. Sharing these focused case histories increases the team’s sense of vulnerability.

Strive to enhance the presentation of these local incidents with vivid photos or videos. Don’t bore employees with dry databases.

3. Post CCPS Process Safety Beacons on bulletin boards. Hopefully you already are familiar with the superb process-safety-awareness qualities of The Process Safety Beacon published by the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS). Each installment, which is free, is a one-page lesson loaded with practical and sage guidance from a team of volunteer experts.

An article entitled “CCPS Process Safety Beacon: A Tool to Promote Process Safety Awareness for Front Line Plant Workers” [3] by Dennis Hendershot, John Herber and George M. King gives an ideal introduction:

“… The Beacon provides a monthly process safety message aimed at front line process plant workers-operators, technicians, shift foreman, mechanics and other maintenance workers. Most Beacons are based on process industry incidents. The Beacon is intended to make plant workers aware of what happened, and what they can do to prevent a similar incident in their own plant. All Beacons include pictures related to the incident or hazard being discussed. They are intended to provide short, easy to read and understandable process safety lessons.”

The Beacon is downloadable in about 30 languages. Get a free subscription.

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