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Networking: the key to ensuring process safety in the future

21st February 2013


The fundamental safety challenge to confront the major hazards industries is to drive down the rate of process safety incidents such as leaks and spills caused by loss of containment. It sounds simple but in fact although there is evidence to suggest that there are fewer year-on-year incidents, those that do occur tend to be more deadly, cause more damage and grab more headlines.

This trend is hardly surprising because as catastrophic events come round less frequently industry becomes less practiced at dealing with them when they do strike and then less able to learn and improve from that experience.

Nevertheless it's not all doom and gloom - in the wake of Texas City there is general acceptance from industry that it requires to put in place an early warning of such accidents - these include a full monitoring programme of loss of control events such as tank overfills and breaches of layers of protection which must be considered as potentially serious incidents. The scale of such events is hidden below the waterline for many organisations at the moment and it is a challenge for most to shine a light on these and most importantly act upon the evidence.

Action is not easy and requires dedicated and reforming leadership. Of course of equal importance is to ensure that senior management set the right tone at the top for safety, provide resourcing, and drive safety issues to satisfactory resolution. Collectively, high-hazards organisations will need to network and share learning experiences on incidents - the 'know why' as well as the 'know how' - in order to advance in the journey to zero accidents.

Networking

The chemical industry has always regarded process safety as a joint effort and not as a 'trade secret'. To improve process safety performance through the whole sector and to support cooperation of professionals in Europe company networks have been created.

In 1992 the European Federation of Chemical Engineers initiated the European Process Safety Centre (EPSC). EPSC is a not-for-profit organisation, funded mainly by companies from the chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical and other major hazard industries, insurers, service providers, consultants and research institutes. It is hosted by the Institution of Chemical Engineers in Rugby, UK. Although most of its presently 37 full and nine associate members are acting globally, EPSC's main focus is Europe within its specific legal and cultural environment. However, EPSC takes into account projects and publications from other member networks to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort where this is appropriate - networking between business networks.

The received wisdom looking back over the post-war period is that improvements in plant design, equipment and construction materials resulted in dramatic reductions in incidents. This was then followed by a focus on safety management systems, which resulted in another performance increase. Lately, human factors and the interaction between the individual job and the workplace environment have seen another drop in the incident rate. The next improvement is possibly to be seen due to safer workers who embrace safety as second nature both at work and outside the workplace. However, upward pressure can hold back improvements in process safety from the impact of aging assets, legacy systems and heritage cultures. This can lead some companies to inevitably revisit parts of the curve.

While process safety remains a key issue for most companies, as a result of the recent economic downturn and structural changes in industry has resulted in new challenges, both for companies themselves and for networks such as EPSC. The dissolving of larger companies into smaller more numerous businesses has a wide range of effects. The smaller entities would have in total a greater (but possibly smaller in size) number of process safety departments. This results in an increase in demand for process safety specialists and a greater need for networking between businesses in order to maintain a high level of process safety - similar to that found with larger companies.

The reverse of this is that some companies have merged and, as expected, this has resulted in a decrease in demand for process safety specialists, where personnel would be expected to take on more responsibilities for larger facilities. The responsibility of networks in this situation would be to ensure that high standards of training and access to relevant resources are maintained for use by the professional, especially as larger businesses would be likely to be using newer designs and equipment that processes a larger capacity, so increasing risk.

As expected in the economic downturn, seemingly non-productive resources will come under increased scrutiny. It is a key responsibility of process safety networks that devices and regulations that are used for ensuring safety are not compromised. Networks such as EPSC would be interested to see if any of this is evident in facilities in countries such as Germany and France after they have both recently come out of recession.

Experience is key

All process safety is experience driven. While training can play a major role in reducing risk, as a rule process safety managers are concerned with the reduction of high-probability but low-risk events such as personal safety - slips, trips and falls - that occur on a day-to-day basis.

However, serious process safety incidents are usually low-probability/high-consequence. These are the events that garner the most interest from the public, the media and senior management.

In regards to serious process safety incident prevention, process safety professionals have now become a victims of their own success. The low probability of these events, the difficulty of analysing them statistically, and the large reduction in occurrences in the last few years, have removed the opportunity for process safety engineers to gain experience. This could present a problem for the next generation of process safety engineers, who may have little or no experience of dealing with a major safety incident.

The amount of credence given to process safety is very dependent on the tone set by the senior management. In general, senior management have little experience of major incidents, (they are possibly in control for a relatively short time). This was evident in the Texas City incident (described in the Baker report) and as such process safety can slip off the agenda.

Interaction with senior management and engaging them is key to successful process safety. EPSC, realising this, is currently working on a DVD aimed at senior managers with the purpose of fostering commitment to process safety within individual organisations.

Networks such as EPSC are looking to be able to improve process safety across companies in the near future. As major incidents not only hit individual companies, but the whole sector, it pays to invest into such networks.

Companies are not compelled by law to network. They willingly share information because safety transcends everyday concerns such as commercial security and competitive advantage. It is also true to repeat the maxim, "with a network you get out more what you put in".

Lee Allford is Operations Manager of the European Process Safety Centre, Rugby, UK. www.epsc.org







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