Poor Process Safety? Blame Management, Regulations and Industry

I recently moderated a Chemical Processing webinar on process safety that featured 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. If you’ve ever attended a presentation by Mannan, you know he is passionate about process safety and he doesn’t pull punches when it comes to placing blame. He also drives home the point that process safety is a journey that never ends. To become safer, companies must get to the root cause.

Mannan pointed to several recent incidents and noted the common factors for all of these fatal accidents: technical issues, poor hazard communication with first responders, management issues and industry's management of the matters. He also stressed the fact that there is no repository of chemical incidents. Without this, there is no way to share main causes and what kinds of chemicals are mainly involved in these catastrophic incidents.

“We see the same movie over and over again,” says Mannan. “The cast may be different, the chemicals may be different, the sequence of events may be different, but the underlying causes are the same.”

Regarding regulations, he suggests that they be based on risk and need. “Once we have a regulation, we must enforce it properly,” says Mannan. “Compliance must be assured. And competence, competence, competence -- that's also very important. People that are working in the regulatory arena must have competence in understanding what's going on in process plants and how these regulations need to be implemented.”

At the end of the webinar he issued a plea. “We need people from academia, people from industry, people from government, as well as public interest groups to join hands and work on this really difficult problem so that we can go on the path to improving process safety not only in one company but throughout the industry.”

To view the on-demand version of the webinar – including a robust Q&A session at the end that featured questions from the audience, visit our registration page. Scroll to the bottom to choose any of our on-demand webinars.

Unfortunately, we had some audio problems during the recording. You also might be interested in downloading the full transcript of this webinar. If you’re going to view the on-demand version, the transcript is located in the Handouts area. If you don’t plan on watching the webinar, download the transcript here.


Traci-bio-photo.jpgTraci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor and webinar moderator. She’s also a fan of Dr. Mannan and process safety. You can email her at tpurdum@putman.net.

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  • I cringe each time I read an article about chemical plant deaths or let's just put it in context with all types of plants and industry deaths. Who or what is to blame and what do we do about it. I've been involved in processing/industrial plants since 1965 since I arrived home from military service and I got a job while preparing to continue my college education. The job was at General Dynamics, Electric boat div., building submarines. It was only for a year until I was accepted at a college and made a few bucks to supplement my military benefits package. My job was as a project engineer in over seeing change orders financial cost analysis. It included chasing around the shiyard what was being used and time that was spent on individual change orders in the shipfitters and associate trades. I went in every nook and crany of the subs getting built to see what was done or needed to be done and follow the costs or materials used. Every time I needed to go to a specific area, I tried to follow the information, to no avail and not one individual worker on any area knew where I should go, until I started asking the fitter bosses or boat managers. You may ask what does this have to do with plant safety? It is the basis of what happens at every industrial plant and is the root cause of every accident or incident. Training! In this plant almost no training was accomplished on any aspect of any job, safety, or even indicated on any drawing or engineering spec sheet. In this instance it effected not only what or where was safe or what area to avoid but the time it took for individuals to even start their job. You can imagine the cost over run on every project no matter how small and the effect it has on management and cost of building a sub. worth billions. There were many accidents and safety issues in that plant and absolutely no orientation was conducted to even this miniscule type of information. All throughout my career, in mines, mineral processing, mineral extraction, agglomeration plants, metal melting and steel making plants, some with chemical reformer and gas making plants, I performed the positions from plant operator to plant manager, project engineer to projects director, construction manager to licensing and corporate director of technology transfer, all this in 25 countries, different cultures and different education or none at all, learnered societies and third world nations. In all that time the most difficult time on the job was training and technology transfer. Most stakeholders as they are called today instead of owners or investers are what we in the industry call bean counters, non-technical people, who do not consider an investment in training as anything but a portion of the cost of the project that can be well spent in other productive areas and can be shown to have a return on the investment. Training and safety are a cost/risk factor and the plant technical and/or plant management should have to deal with it as they would a labor situation benefit. If a person is hired to do a job, he/she should have the survival instinks not to do something that could jeapodize the plant financial return. Only when confronted with regulations and fines that effect profitability will they consider changes for safety or programs of training a financial benefit. In most plants and operations, this is the only time that a safety manager or a training director would be considered on the payroll. In governments, State or Federal, the personnel that comprise inspectors, accident investigators, compliance officers and the like have to be able to understand completely the positions in the plants and the training required to accomplish the jobs and the production. They must be able to confidentally write the regulations for the officers of the plants to understand what is needed by the operators and engineers and supervisors to run the plants and equipment and understand the chemistry that goes with it. All parties from the government and the plant must seek a constant vigilante attitude towards the human factor. It goes without saying that the safety and protection of the people should be a top priority in doing business.

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