Expert Says Safety Regulations Haven’t Made Us Safer

Well time got away from me again and I am now just addressing the process safety webinar I moderated last month. But I am at least within the 30-day window of the event (it took place on April 18.) It was the second installment of our Process Safety series and our speaker, Dr. Sam Mannan, Regents Professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M University and Director of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center, once again delivered on the topic in his no-holds-barred approach.

The topic of this event was Enforcement and Operational Discipline. Specifically, Dr. Mannan stated that regulations must be science-based and take into account all the data available as well as practical factors. However, once a regulation is developed, clear and systematic methods must be developed for comprehensive enforcement.

First he answered the question: What are the driving forces for process safety?

According to Mannan, if you go back to the 1970s and '80s, things were quite a bit different than they are now. Processes were much simpler; we used very few exotic or toxic chemicals. But things have changed dramatically.

Mannan’s driving forces for process safety:

  • Growing population
  • Rising standard of living
  • Risk perception
  • Society’s choices
  • The need for constructive dialogue -- we as a society need to look out for how we avoid these pitfalls.

“We started our current journey on regulations in 1990 as far as process safety regulation is concerned,” says Mannan. “And so clearly one might ask, what progress have we made, based on these regulations or have we made any progress? In answering this question, what I can tell you is that a jury is still out.

“We really can't say with any degree of certainty or understanding whether or not we are getting better or we are getting worse.”

Mannan says there is a need for a national hazardous materials incident surveillance system.

“I think it's paramount that if we are going to have a regulation, we base it on science, we base it on data, we base it on understanding what the ramifications are. And along with that we need to make sure that the costs justify the risks that we are reducing. We cannot spend exorbitant amounts of money which reduce only a small amount of risk. We have to justify it based on the amount of risk that is being reduced.”

To hear more on Mannan’s approach to process safety, watch the on-demand version of this webinar. You can also download a complete transcript of the presentation, including the Q&A at the end.


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  • Interesting article, Tracy. Thank you for sharing. And thank you, Dr. Mannan and the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center for the viewpoint. Readers might be interested to know, according to a recent industry survey, 60% of respondents believe operators remain vulnerable to events like the Texas City disaster and Deepwater Horizon - as regulations have changed little. In the same survey, almost three quarters (73.5%) said safety would be improved if everyone had access to real-time process safety risk information. More information about this industry survey can be accessed, here: I wonder what others think about the effectiveness of process safety regulation?


  • I really like the ideas of Operational Excellence. I seems to go hand in hand the idea of Operational Integrity, that I encountered during my years in industry in Canada. There is a few studies in Europe that which claim to see some evidence in our Major Hazards Database, that the Seveso directives in the EU have improved process safety, but I think that is hard to see. So I very much agree that we need a scientific approach to process safety enforcement, and hopefully one that punish the bad actors and not the whole industry with an increased burden of regulations.


  • Yes we need to follow the rules but they are only paper until implemented. Declaring something and doing it are separate things. The 10 commandments were published long ago but we see violations every day. (The Decalogue or the equal is found in most sacred texts). As long as we are careless and gamble with safety we will have accidents. Holding companies and managers responsible might have an impact.


  • I wonder how much of this perception is real. What I mean is that remember where we were in the 1970s an 80’s. Chemical operations were extremely dangerous. Seldom did a plant turnaround not wind up with an injury and even a fatality. There were acute dangers and chronic ones, companies seldom took ownership of: consider asbestos. There were a series of serious accidents in the late 1980’s, primarily in Texas, that prompted the creation of the Chemical Safety Board specifically to investigate chemical accidents. We’re on plateau. If we want to stay there, we need to improve regulation by addressing chronic (long-term) risks and by actually enforcing the laws we have. Enforcement is necessary to provide backing to engineers, front-line managers and union leaders.


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