Process Safety: Get Ready For 10 Changes

Feb. 7, 2017
Ten emerging trends will reshape how chemical makers approach and manage safety

The practice of safety in the chemical industry has changed and matured significantly over the past several decades and will continue to evolve. Taking a glimpse into the future based on current trends is a good place to start a dialogue on what those changes might be. Preparing for the future is never an exact science but even an inexact attempt is better than no preparation at all. That said, let me outline some trends I see based on my extensive consulting and field experience in chemical safety that might impact you.

First, and possibly foremost, safety excellence is growing in its critical importance to the chemical industry. Safety mishaps always have been an expense and negative influence on production — but in the future they also may provide the basis for more and more stringent legislative and regulatory actions. The past decade has seen safety regulatory agencies turn from a cooperative stance to an enforcement mentality, increasingly focusing on catching and punishing the worst offenders rather than encouraging the best performers.

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Regardless of any changes the Trump administration makes, organizations will seek to stay off the radar screen of regulatory agencies. The best way to do this is to have excellent lagging indicators for safety. Even though we are discovering the limitations of lagging indicators in helping to improve performance, they remain the holy metric to regulators. The very nature of lagging indicators will tempt some chemical manufacturers to manipulate the numbers; regulators will look closely for such issues. Organizational leaders will begin to take a more active interest in such metrics as they hear of others in their ranks being punished for offenses they once could blame on subordinates. Safety performance and measurement will become an issue for the boardroom as well as the safety department. Savvy leaders will turn to their engineers and other subject matter experts (SMEs) for advice on improving performance to shape lagging indicators.

The Trump administration most likely won’t reduce the emphasis on safety but will change the methods for achieving it. Expect regulatory agencies to reemphasize former programs such as the Voluntary Protection Program and others that encourage a partnership between regulators and organizations to further safety efforts and technologies. Such programs increase the positive reinforcement for excellence and reserve punishment for more willful and flagrant offenders. Any changes from the new administration won’t be immediate and lawmakers could resist them, leading to even more delays. So, organizations can hope for a relaxing of punitive measures in the future but should stay mindful of current realities.

Other Key Drivers

Another important impetus for an enhanced emphasis on safety will come from organizational leaders who will focus more seriously on so-called “major operational risks” (MORs). These risks will include safety issues but also critical environmental and financial threats. MORs are the risks that potentially could cost the whole business. As such, they head the priority list for stockholders, directors of publicly held firms and owners of private enterprises. Very few organizations turn over the management of these risks to the safety department. Some assign top executives to manage each of them. Others are forming teams or committees to oversee the risk management efforts. Chemical engineers will serve as key members of such committees; their technical knowledge is crucial to successfully manage MORs.

Insurance companies are driving the focus on MORs as well. As they sense the high potential impact of such events on traditional coverage, umbrella coverage and public relations, insurers are attempting to help their covered organizations protect themselves. As of now, most major insurance carriers don’t agree on a clear single path to such protection — but a growing list of suggested steps is beginning to show similarities. Many of these steps closely resemble or exactly match safety efforts. This expansion of safety efforts from simply preventing occupational injuries to averting other high-impact events will have one of two effects: It will either expand the traditional definition of safety and greatly impact the scope of the safety department, or it will change the organizational design of overall risk management, bringing it closer to the boardroom and further from simply being a delegated assignment.

Additionally, more major players in the chemical industry will insist on safety excellence from their contractors and suppliers. Most of these chemical makers either are very good at safety or have convinced themselves they are. As such, they don’t want to dilute their safety programs and cultures by mixing in contractors and suppliers with lower levels of safety performance. Good safety programs and metrics will become not just desirable but necessary to get contracts with the big boys. Major petrochemical firms will use safety as an additional screening criterion to select those with whom to contract. Some already are doing this on a lower level — such screening will increase and become more stringent. In the next few years, no other area of excellence will compensate for poor performance in safety when bidding on projects or supplying major firms.

Middlemen who have placed themselves between the major players and the contractors will become the absolute gatekeepers for contractors. Their already strong position will grow even stronger as the major firms divest themselves of internal expertise and completely outsource the screening of contractors. Many of these companies also will begin to require their gatekeepers not only to select the contractors but also to orient and train them as well. This already has begun and has the potential for either improvement or disaster. It remains to be seen exactly how the companies that are screening contractors will handle the additional responsibilities their clients want them to assume. However, this could mean chemical contractors may have a new set of standards to address in the near future.

Major Universal Safety Trends

In addition to the growing importance of safety and the expansion of preventative efforts from traditional safety to MORs, seven other trends are emerging.

1. The very definition of safety excellence will undergo reframing from zero accidents to sustainable and repeatable value. Lagging indicators won’t disappear but leaders will realize excellence is in the process that produces it and not just in the results. The goal of safety will be defined as adding value to the safety efforts. Both the use of new “big data” analysis and traditional trial-and-error will determine the algorithms between value-add activities and results. The leading indicators safety professionals are seeking will turn out to be those activities that add value to the safety efforts. The definition of safety excellence and the approach to achieve it will move significantly from reactive to proactive.

2. The increasing importance of safety will drive organizational leaders to move from the traditional programmatic approach to a strategic one. While the detail work of safety will continue to be delegated, the strategy will not. Leaders will find it necessary to develop safety strategies to synergize with business strategies rather than compete with them. The proverbial “production versus safety” battle will be fought in the boardroom by senior leaders rather than on the plant floor by workers and supervisors.

Such strategy will result in some basic changes to organizational structure. What was once the almost exclusive duty of the safety department will be divided among other organizational silos according to its nature. This means safety engineering will become the major responsibility of the engineering department. Safety department personnel will serve as SMEs to advise engineering about regulatory details but the real work of design, preventative maintenance and standard operating procedures development will fall back to the technical experts who best understand the processes.

3. Organizational leaders will provide safety leadership, not delegate it to safety SMEs. (See “Process Safety Begins in the Boardroom.”) The work still will be delegated but not the leadership. The development of safety strategy mentioned above will be the re-entry point of leaders into safety. Addressing MORs also will be viewed as a management responsibility that can’t be delegated completely. Leaders will break through the silos that have divided safety from production; the potential for truly “safe production” will begin to become a reality.

4. Safety professionals will progress from grunt (doing all the work) to guardian (managing the work) to guru (becoming the advisor and resource for the line managers and supervisors who will manage safety as a part of production). As leaders take back the strategic responsibilities of safety, the daily oversight of safety in the workplace will begin to be more a part of mainstream supervision. As this happens, safety professionals will evolve from managers and supervisors to SMEs and advisors to both leaders and supervisors. Likewise, some engineers will find themselves active members of interdisciplinary safety committees or teams that will replace the traditional safety-only departments. Safety will become an aspect of everyone’s job and will find its way more and more into job descriptions and responsibilities. This not only will impact engineering but also production, training, logistics, human resources and other functions whose expertise is a necessary part of safety excellence.

5. A new kind of safety consultant will emerge. Such specialists will offer customized solutions rather than a universal program; their role will include modifying and tailoring many existing programs rather than scrapping them and starting over from scratch.

As leaders become more strategic, they necessarily will become less programmatic. They will not shop for the newest consultant-developed program but will look for strategic partners with corporate problem-solving skills. Improvement efforts will need to be fit for purpose and systematically woven into the fabric of the culture. Consultants who can fill this new role will work more with the C-suite and less with the site safety professionals. They will need to be business savvy and multidisciplinary.

6. Safety programs will begin to change their focus from viewing the worker as a problem to be controlled, to being the customer whose needs should be met. As the mindset changes from zero accidents to adding value, organizations will realize workers are the customers of safety to whom value should be added. It still will be necessary to comply with regulatory guidelines, which, in the past, has resulted in some ineffective and inefficient training activities. However, even these required “refresher” trainings are being restructured to both meet regulatory requirements and provide value to workers. Organizations are realizing that if they already are taking workers off the job for training, they should make the most of this time. The ability to customize computer-based training will facilitate this. The same old required training will truly add value to employees in the near future as it already does at leading-edge organizations.

7. Safety metrics will evolve from lagging indicators to leading indicators to a true measure of value added at each stage resembling a balanced scorecard used by financial managers. (For insights on potential leading indicators, see: “Bolster Your Lead Process Safety Metrics.”) The search for leading indicators is a movement from one-dimensional to two-dimensional thinking. However, the world remains three-dimensional. As organizations discover what adds value and includes them in their list of leading indicators, they also will discover what drives the value-adding indicators and what intermediate improvements lead to lagging-indicator gains. These intermediate steps also will be measured; the result will be a true three-dimensional balanced scorecard for safety.

Safety Culture

There’s been a lot of talk for years about the need for chemical engineering to become more engaged in the soft skills of culture building and move away from the strictly technical approach to safety. I could not disagree with this more if it were twice as wrong. The chemical industry has a culture of safety that, in many respects, is superior to those who have taken a more touchy-feely approach. The demands of the industry and the technical skills of key people in it dictate a very distinct cultural model to succeed at safety. All successful cultures adapt to the survival demands of their environmental realities. Just as indigenous people living near the Arctic Circle developed a different culture than those on tropical islands, chemical workers developed a different culture than that of workers in other manufacturing sectors. No culture is universally superior — or interchangeable with another.

The nature of the chemical industry’s safety issues requires more technically savvy workers. This doesn’t mean they can neglect to address universal issues such as trips and falls. It means they have more critical safety issues that should be prioritized as such. A “techier” culture doesn’t have to be less humanistic or caring; it simply must be more task- and process-oriented. Astute leaders are recognizing this and allowing their safety cultures to strive for personal best versus some universal model of perfection. This approach will continue and spread to organizations in other industries.

Process Safety Management

Without getting into detailed technical aspects of process safety management (PSM), three important trends will emerge in the near future:

1. PSM will continue to make almost dizzying technical advances. Computerized controls and other technologies will make keeping up with PSM more like keeping up with information technology. Organizations will be in constant flux just understanding the changes, much less taking advantage of all of them.

2. Organizations outside the chemical industry will seek to emulate PSM and adapt its primary principles and methods. They will offer to partner with chemical companies to learn how to do so and will look for other technologies or methodologies they can offer in return. Partnerships between dissimilar and non-competing organizations will form — with the potential to create breakthroughs in safety excellence for both parties.

3. PSM will be viewed as the primary tool to address technical aspects of the above-mentioned MORs. Catastrophic events always have been expensive and dangerous to organizational survival. Averting them will be even more critical in the future. Leaders will give more attention and resources to ensure their organizations don’t produce unplanned major events. Regulatory agencies will focus on organizations that make the news with their disasters and that focus will be increasingly punitive. Negative coverage by news agencies will add to the regulatory impact. The best defense against such events will be prevention; PSM will take the lead in that effort.

Be Prepared

Forward-looking organizations should strive to identify major trends that could impact the viability of their safety efforts. The lack of a crystal ball with exact details shouldn’t detract from that effort. A few major trends merit attention and likely will have some degree of impact in the foreseeable future. Safety already has grown significantly in importance and will continue to do so. Being pretty good at safety may not be good enough for very long. Astute leaders will assess the potential impact of the issues discussed here and develop future-centered safety strategies that cross over organizational silos and address safety holistically. For the less astute, the future always will be a dark journey full of unpleasant and potentially fatal surprises. For the prepared, the future will be a series of opportunities to take the lead in business and drive safety excellence to new heights.

TERRY L. MATHIS is founder and CEO of ProAct Safety, The Woodlands, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected].


Galloway, S.M., and Mathis, T.L., “Forecasting Tomorrow: The Future of Safety Excellence,” SCE Press, The Woodlands, Texas (2015).

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