Improving safety behavior – an African perspective

09 November 2014

By Gary McFadden and Martyn Ramsden

How do you improve process safety behavior in order to reduce the risk of a major incident?  This was a question we sought to answer as part of an ERM presentation at the recent SPE conference and exhibition in Maputo, Mozambique.  Making the workforce more vigilant with regard to process safety is an issue constantly facing our clients.

The ERM Risk Management presentation covered what we are calling a series of  'Golden Rules’ for improving process safety behaviour. These include the anticipation of problem areas, regular checking of safety barriers and a willingness among leaders to engage – particularly in the way they encourage and accept the reporting of bad news.

Five Golden Rules
This type of approach is highly relevant for oil and gas companies operating in Africa where very few countries have implemented legislation to ensure good process management at facilities.  The onus is on companies to ‘self regulate’ whereby they seek to apply their own corporate systems and processes covering this area. Our clients recognize the importance of getting it right, given that a major incident can mean loss of production, huge additional costs and serious reputational damage.  The five ‘Golden Rules for Process Safety’ that concluded the Maputo presentation were as follows:

  • Understand and anticipate the accident scenarios you face, even the unlikely ones.
  • Monitor and respond to the signs that suggest safety barriers may be weakening.
  • Take every opportunity to learn.
  • Learn from genuine mistakes and be firm with negligence or willful violations.
  • Encourage leaders who engage with process safety and who welcome reporting of bad news.

Occupational versus process safety risk
A first step for any company is to make a clear distinction between personal (occupational) safety and process safety.  The former, as defined in The Baker Report on the 2005 Texas City Refinery Explosion is about slips, falls and other accidents which primarily affect one worker per incident - even though this may amount to a fatality.  The latter – for example a fire or an explosion on an offshore Platform – can, according to Baker “have catastrophic effects and can result in multiple injuries and fatalities, as well as substantial economic, property and environmental damage.”

Baker makes a clear distinction and it is important for companies to follow suit – particularly when operating in a region where there may little or no process safety regulation relating to oil and facilities.  The Golden Rules of the type listed above can help a company to make the Baker distinction while also helping to ensure that process safety is a living entity.

In our experience, the effective integration of people and processes is essential. People working at an oil and gas facility must carry out numerous tasks, often in very challenging circumstances. They will frequently focus on occupational safety – wearing the correct headgear for example or the right protective clothing – without looking at the major hazard issues around them.

Vigilance over safety barriers
Taking steps to avoid a major incident can be as simple as checking a pipeline connection or not discarding a cigarette in the wrong place.  There have been a number of major incidents in recent years where Golden Rule vigilance does not appear to have been applied.

An example is the 2011 Nairobi pipeline fire, which was caused by the apparently careless ignition of leaking fuel.  The fire killed over 100 people and it was argued that better containment checks could have helped to mitigate the consequences of this accident. The Golden Rule in this case is that you need to monitor and respond to the signs that process safety barriers may be weakening.

Going back to 1998 another high profile African incident was the pipeline explosion at Jesse, south east of Lagos, Nigeria, which killed 700 people. The country’s most deadly pipeline incident was apparently caused by scavengers who ruptured equipment in their attempts to siphon off oil. Making infrastructure as safe, secure and as tamper-proof as possible is an absolute requirement for operating and avoiding major incidents in certain parts of the world.

Safety case regime
Major incidents, as ERM noted at the SPE Africa event, should provide us with at least some of the learning needed to improve process safety behaviour. In 1989, for example, an incident in Pasadena in the US killed 27 people because a valve had been left open when it should have been closed. In addition to killing people, the resulting explosion also cost around $1.5bn in damage to the site and business disruption. A year earlier the Piper Alpha accident killed 167 people and cost $3.4bn in insured loss.  This led directly to the North Sea safety case regime – and a more active, goal-setting approach to process safety.

This goal-setting, risk-based approach, with the onus on companies to keep improving process safety behaviour is, we believe, a global trend. The Golden Rules are designed to be part of this approach and are based on such concepts as ‘maintaining a chronic sense of unease’ and ‘responding strongly to weak signals’. These concepts have themselves emerged in response to major incidents such as Buncefield, Texas City and Macondo.

Risk-based approach
In conclusion, companies need to engage their workforce in process safety at all levels in order to better understand and prioritize the risks they face.  In this way they can more effectively manage the big accident hazards and avoid the fire or explosion that could turn corporate fortunes and reputations upside down.

Gary McFadden is an ERM Partner based at ERM’s Johannesburg office in South Africa. Martyn Ramsden is an ERM Partner and Technical Fellow based in Manchester, UK. If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, please contact either Gary McFadden at or Martyn Ramsden at

The above article is based on the paper entitled “Golden Rules to Improve Process Safety Behaviors” presented at the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ first African Health Safety, Security, Environment & Social Responsibility Conference  

Contact Us

How can we help you? Contact us to discuss how we can help your organization.