We Must Improve Safety and Security

Sept. 29, 2011
Better performance demands more than add-on equipment and software.

Many chemical plants handle flammable and toxic materials. The increasing interest in designing out hazards (see "Consider Inherent Safety at Your Plant,") hopefully will lead to reduced risks at numerous existing sites and will provide even greater benefits for future facilities. However, we can't escape the reality of the chemistry that underpins our operations. Making some products invariably must involve reactions or other steps whose materials and conditions pose significant risks.


Indeed, a chemical facility is responsible for the worst industrial disaster ever. More than 25 years ago, a leak at a pesticide plant at Bhopal, India, killed thousands. That incident galvanized the industry into action, leading, for instance, to the formation of the Center for Chemical Process Safety by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, New York City, and the Responsible Care program of the American Chemistry Council, Arlington, Va.

Operating and engineering companies now devote substantial attention to safety and take a formalized approach using tools such as hazard and operability studies, and layers of protection analysis (LOPA) to identify risks and how best to address them. (Some managers, though, distrust LOPA, see: "Overcome Skepticism about LOPA.") Likewise, firms today carefully evaluate the safety integrity level (SIL) required for instrumentation used to forestall risks ("Do You Really Need SIL 3?").

However, as safety guru Trevor Kletz notes in "Bhopal Leaves a Lasting Legacy,": "The disaster taught some hard lessons that the chemical industry still sometimes forgets."

So, while the industry's safety record has improved substantially since the Bhopal disaster, further gains certainly are possible — and, indeed, necessary. Companies should strive to equal, if not exceed, the enviable record achieved by Dow Chemical, Midland, Mich., as I've already noted ("We Can Learn a Lot from Dow Chemical.")

Michael Gambrell, executive vice president of manufacturing and engineering operations for Dow, shares some insights on how Dow has attained its stellar safety performance and what other companies can do to replicate its success in "Make Safety Second Nature."  It's crucial to tackle both the soft and hard sides of safety, he notes. The soft side, which revolves around making safety a part of the corporate culture, is harder to address than the hard side, which involves companywide operating disciplines, processes and tools. Hopefully, the five tips he gives will help other chemical companies create an effective and enduring safety culture. To succeed, of course, firms must "walk the walk," not just "talk the talk."

Today, security imposes an added dimension to maintaining safe plant operations. Threats unimaginable little more than a decade ago now loom large and have spurred regulations such as the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards. For more on what's happening with these mandates and other security efforts, you should regularly check our Chemical Security Action blog, http://community.ChemicalProcessing.com/chemical_security_action).

The threats posed by physical incursions onto plant sites are easy to understand, as are most of the necessary countermeasures such as more-thorough checking of employees, contractors and visitors; expanded video surveillance; and enhanced hardware to restrict access.

However, cyber attacks exploit weaknesses that are harder to grasp, at least by nonspecialists. We certainly appreciate the hazards posed by hackers and malware gaining access to corporate and plant software systems, especially since the Stuxnet attack last year that specifically targeted process control systems and led to the destruction of centrifuges at an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility ("Industry Gets Cyber-Security Reality Check,") — but defeating digital demons involves arcane software and network issues foreign to most of us.

So, setting up a cyber-security program and running it on an ongoing basis may appear overwhelming — but it's doable, counsels Rick Kaun of Honeywell. His article ("Achieve Effective Cyber Security,") demystifies what's needed to develop, set up and maintain a robust defense. Breaking down efforts into three steps — inventory, integrate and implement — is essential and, as with safety, corporate culture also plays a crucial role, he stresses.

Complacency isn't an option. Doing the minimum to comply with regulations isn't enough. The chemical industry must continue to improve its safety performance and must elevate security to the same top priority as safety.

Mark Rosenzweig, editor-in-chief of Chemical Processing, cares about your safety. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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