10 Rules to Succeed at Process Safety Management

Podcast: How To Succeed at Process Safety Management — 10 Rules

April 16, 2024
Based on his many years in the chemical industry and his years at the CSB, John Bresland developed a “top 10” list of rules for process safety success.

This In Case You Missed It episode of Process Safety with Trish & Traci brings the written word to life. Today, I will be reading an excerpt from a column written a few years ago by John Bresland, president of Process Safety Risk Assessment LLC and former chair of the United States Chemical Safety Board. The column  “10 Rules To Succeed at Process Safety Management

He noted that during his years at the CSB, he learned that three types of process companies exist.

The first type of company doesn’t understand the hazards of its operations. It lacks suitable process safety programs and suffers serious accidents with dire consequences.

The second type of company does understand the hazards and the regulations. It has excellent safety programs and quality people but still experiences incidents, some minor and some very serious.

The third type of company understands the hazards and the regulations. It has excellent safety programs and quality people. It doesn’t have any serious incidents.

Any company in the business of processing hazardous chemicals should strive to become the third type of company.

Based on his many years in the chemical industry and his years at the CSB, he developed a “top ten” list of rules for process safety success. 

Here are those rules:

1. Leadership (president, chair, board member, plant manager, shift supervisor) must be committed to process safety. If you are the leader of any type of process company, the safety of your employees and the financial success of your firm depend upon your leadership on process safety. Leaders not only must communicate their passion for process safety but also must establish the right organization and apply the needed resources.

2. You must get the best possible people in your company, from senior management to the operators in the control rooms of your facilities. In a perfect world, chemical engineers would oversee the complexities of a plant 24 hours a day. However, many engineers don’t aspire to such an operations role, and even those who do wouldn’t enjoy spending their careers working rotating shifts. So, you must mandate a stringent hiring process for control room operators — and for all employees for that matter; training and education opportunities must continue throughout a person’s career. Finding and keeping the best people will mean success for your company.

3. You must ensure equipment reliability through an effective program for mechanical integrity (now more commonly called asset integrity). In today’s world, where process plants can operate for 3–4 years or even longer between major turnarounds, the reliability of process equipment is of paramount importance. You must pay attention to everything from piping to valves to control devices to major rotating machinery. To keep the plant running and know that your equipment isn’t going to fail, you will need expertise, such as employees who understand corrosion or the complexities of rotating equipment.

4. Be passionate about taking care of the details. Large process plants are extremely complicated, containing millions of parts and sophisticated electronic equipment and software. Key equipment should have backups so that a single failure can’t cause a shutdown or process incident.

5. Establish, if you haven’t already, and carefully track process safety metrics to monitor your operations. These metrics will educate you on how your plant is operating. You should develop both lagging and leading metrics. Some examples of lagging metrics are the number of reportable incidents and the number of times that a pressure relief valve activates. A leading metric should inform you about activities in your plant that can indicate a trend toward a negative outcome — for example, incomplete action items from investigation reports.

6. Take the long view on risk. If an employee alerts you to a problem that only can be resolved by shutting down the process, you must weigh the loss of production from a shutdown and the possibility of a disappointed customer against keeping the process operating until the next scheduled turnaround and risking an incident such as a fire or a chemical spill that may lead to injuries to personnel or damage to the environment. I urge you to take the long-term view and shut down the process today to resolve the problem. By taking the long view, you will incur short-term consequences that soon will be forgotten. On the other hand, an explosion or toxic release, because you delayed taking care of the immediate problem, will cause long-lasting impacts for you and for your company.

7. Prepare for the possibility of an incident, a fire or an explosion with injuries or off-site impact. You should ensure you have a first-class emergency response plan and know your local emergency responders. Run drills with them. In addition, maintain a good relationship with local community leaders. Understand that a serious event will turn your business and personal life upside down. Your day-to-day responsibilities of running a process plant will give way to dealing with federal and state regulatory and investigative agencies, lawyers, insurance adjusters, news media and a host of other people with a need to know what happened. Of course, the best way to avoid this is not to have an incident — but planning ahead to prepare for such an emergency can pay huge dividends if one were to occur. Sit down with your leadership team to develop a contingency plan. Then, work with local responders and the community so they can become familiar and train for their role.

8. Thoroughly investigate all incidents. Always remember that smaller events often very easily could escalate to catastrophic ones and cause a fatality. You should establish a team that not only is well trained on the techniques of incident investigation but also is charged with finding the real root cause of an event. Too often today, what’s described as the root cause actually isn’t. Stating “valve failed” or “operator did not check the oxygen level” doesn’t address the underlying issues: “Why did the valve fail?” or “Why didn’t the operator check the oxygen level?” The most-useful root cause analyses are those that identify a systemic or management issue. (For details on a program one company has successfully used to drive down operator line-up errors, see “Walk the Line.”)

9. Don’t allow complacency to develop. When everything is going well, quality is excellent, and your plant has had no environmental incidents, personnel accidents or process safety issues, people tend to get complacent. Strongly combat this inclination. Keep running a “tight ship.” Any letup in your resolve to have the best safety program can come back to haunt you with a serious near-miss or an actual incident. As a company leader, it’s your responsibility to continually send the message of safe operation and no complacency to all your people. (For details on one effective way to fight complacency, see “Stimulate a Sense of Vulnerability.")

10. Finally, and maybe most important, you must develop and nurture a strong process safety culture within your company. Culture basically means “the way we do things around here.” Of course, a positive safety culture starts with a positive corporate culture (see: “Process Safety Begins in the Board Room"). Employees gauge whether management is just “talking the talk” or really “walking the walk” by its actions: Does management pay attention to safety? Does it ignore the safety suggestions of employees? Does it closely monitor process safety statistics? Does it signal that production is more important than safety? Answer those questions and you’ll know how strong or weak your safety culture is. Ensure that in your organization you are doing things the safest way.

Unfortunate events happen all over the world and we will be here to discuss and learn from them. Subscribe to this free podcast so you can stay on top of best practices – you can also visit us at for more tools and resources aimed at helping you run efficient and safe facilities. On behalf of Trish, I’m Traci – thank you for listening to the In Case You Missed It edition of Process Safety with Trish & Traci   

About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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