Process safety - are you giving it the attention it deserves?

09 December 2014

The consequences of getting it wrong can be truly frightening – in recent decades we have seen  devastating toxic gas releases at Bhopal (India) and Seveso (Italy); explosions at Texas City and Waco (USA), Toulouse (France), San Juanico (Mexico) and Buncefield (UK); and the BP Gulf of Mexico explosion and oil spill, among others.  Whilst lessons have been learned from these events that have prevented similar incidents, major incidents and loss of life continue to occur.

A process failure can result in a catastrophe that extends beyond the boundaries of a facility, impacting not only those on the site, but also the surrounding communities.  The awareness of communities of these types of risks, and the associated expectations on operators to demonstrate that they can operate their facilities safely continues to increase, under the scrutiny of regulators.  Without that trust your licence to operate may be at risk.
Get it wrong and the consequences can include multiple fatalities, damage to brand and reputation, major business disruption and substantial financial fines and claims – even the very existence of your business. If you are handling significant inventories of hazardous materials within your operations either in production or within ancillary services/utilities - for example ammonia in refrigeration systems; liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as a fuel; or flammable gases as aerosol propellants - then you need to be giving process safety the right focus.

We often find that personal safety receives most of the management focus and resource within the organisation, whilst process safety risks are either not fully understood (or even recognised at all) or are not given the required focus as they can lack the same immediacy and visibility of day-to-day occupational safety.  Process safety incidents are low frequency but can have very significant consequences whilst personal safety incidents are more frequent but, in most cases, of lower severity.  Although personal and process safety are both fundamentally about effective management of risk, they do require different approaches and tools.   
Process safety is a complex subject, but there are some overarching aspects that you need to get right:  management commitment and visible leadership; a deep understanding of the hazards and risks and how to manage these risks through robust controls; and a process of continuous review and improvement, including learning from incidents.

But how do you know if you are missing the obvious?  How can you best identify the process safety gaps and areas where you are vulnerable, whilst at the same time highlighting the commendable practices to share across the organisation?  ERM has worked with a number of organisations to design and conduct Process Safety Management (PSM) programmes to address these questions.  A critical element of the PSM programme is the audit function which, if designed well, can add a huge amount of value to the programme as a whole.

PSM audits focus on two main aspects.  The first is to identify and focus on the high hazard activities and understand key worst case events.  An innovative approach to do this is to use bow-tie risk assessment methodology.  The bow-tie diagram is a quantitative tool that helps to identify the key threats and consequences that could arise as a result of the loss of control over a process safety hazard on-site; the key safety defences (barriers and controls) that should be in place to prevent the event from occurring; and the measures in place to mitigate the consequences if such an event was to occur.  The second aspect is to then test the robustness of the defences through auditing (i) the critical aspects of the site’s PSM programme, including leadership commitment, hazard identification, asset reliability and integrity, management of change, emergency response, and incident investigation and (ii) the specific barriers and mitigation measures identified through the bow-tie exercise.    

The outputs include pragmatic consequence modelling, bespoke bow-ties and clear action plans, all of which the site can use to improve its process safety performance.  In addition, as the bow-tie sessions are a collaborative exercise involving the active participation of the site team, it ensures that the audit process is seen as a supportive process to improving the sites safety performance.

You cannot afford to rely on luck alone to make sure a catastrophic incident doesn’t happen to you.  Major hazards demand major commitment.

For further information contact

To find out more about process safety contact Andrew Bale, Partner, Performance and Assurance Practice



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