What’s the case for a US version of the safety case?

02 April 2014

By Stephen Shaw

What’s the case for a risk-based approach to process safety in the US? Arguably a strong one and getting stronger, given the rising cost of major accidents. Oil and gas companies, not to mention the relevant regulatory authorities, are currently considering their options.

The goal setting approach is now accepted practice in a number of jurisdictions around the world but not in the US - yet. It involves an operator setting their own objectives and demonstrating or making a case to the regulator that they are managing safety effectively. This is in sharp contrast to what has been a more prescriptive US approach to both onshore and offshore safety, whereby the regulator sets out a set of ‘one size fits all’ requirements and the operator must comply – no more and no less. 

The safety case regime, which operates in countries such as Norway Australia and the UK, has its origins in the nuclear industry and the aftermath of a number of high profile incidents – the explosion at the Flixborough Chemical plant in the UK in 1974; the release of dioxins at the Seveso plant in Northern Italy in 1976 and the Piper Alpha catastrophe in 1988 which killed 167 people and formally brought the safety case concept into being. Each incident was caused by a series of failures which could have been anticipated by looking at the bigger picture.  Safety cases afford an opportunity for looking at all aspects of major accident hazards.

More recent incidents in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond have stirred regulators and operators to take a fresh look at process safety arrangements – not only how to prevent major accidents but also how to mitigate their consequences. Macondo and a number of other hyper costly and disruptive events led to the enactment of the EU’s Offshore Safety Directive in July 2013.  The Directive, when transposed into national law, will affect more than 1,000 installations and will require operators to produce a safety case – known in this instance as a Major Hazard Report (MHR) – and demonstrate effective accident control policies wherever they are operating  - in EU waters and beyond. 

As a general rule, the safety case approach involves the following key steps:

  1. Check over a facility and understand it from a safety perspective.
  2. Identify and get a better understanding of important threats.
  3. Know what safeguards are in place
  4. Ensure that safeguards are adequate
  5. Ensure safeguards are maintained as part of a management system.

Summarised in this way it seems simple enough but for some US operators it would represent a cultural sea change.  How, for example, would the additional requirement to produce a safety case keep them in compliance with existing regulations without entailing excessive bureaucracy?
In talking with refinery operators in the US, ERM’s sense is that the industry recognises the potential benefits of a safety case, but fears the introduction of yet more bureaucratic requirements, covering material already provided under other legislation.  The Holy Grail would seem to be using the safety case as an instrument to meet existing requirements in a unified way, preferably with a joined-up regulatory oversight.

Perhaps most important of all, operators want to understand how a safety case approach can add value in the way they manage major accident risks. According to Peter Wilkinson of the Offshore Safety Section in the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources, Australia “One of the main benefits is not the finished product but the actual process of preparing the safety case and having to identify hazards and review the installation design, construction and operation.” He also makes the point that “safety cases make it possible for the regulator’s interventions to be more effective because the safety case should identify the critical safety issues and the regulator can concentrate on these.”

For around 90 operators in the Gulf of Mexico, there is now a requirement to ensure there is more workforce involvement in the day to day operation of  their Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS). The new SEMS 2 audit cycle will monitor such aspects as a Stop Work Authority (SWA) which gives employees the right to stop work if they witness unsafe behaviour and an Employee Participation plan (EPP) which is designed to bring about more workforce involvement in eliminating or mitigating hazards. While the regime itself remains prescriptive, SEMS 2 is about involving the workforce as part of efforts to improve safety performance and reduce the risk of accidents.

Similarly in a paper delivered at this year’s SPE meeting in Long Beach, California, ERM consultants presented the safety case process as another way to engage the workforce meaningfully in order to reduce the risk of major accident hazards. The paper highlights safety case failings which, it notes, have included an over technical, documentary approach in contrast to turning the safety case into “a vehicle to engage, educate and involve the workforce …” UK North Sea experience, for example, is that the introduction of a safety case regime has made a positive contribution to process safety management and incident prevention.

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has been among organizations calling for more of a risk-based approach to process safety at both onshore and offshore facilities.  Speaking after one recent high profile incident, the Chair of the CSB, Rafael Moure-Eraso talked about the need to “focus on driving down risk to the lowest practicable level,” in line with what he believed should be a more rigorous, performance-based regulatory regime. 
The  “as low as reasonably practicable” (ALARP) concept is an important element of the safety case regime. It is designed to add value as  a measure of how far major hazards can be controlled and risks reduced before costs are out of all proportion to the benefit gained. The ALARP approach is designed to target relevant major risks at a particular facility.

The question then for operators in the US and beyond is the extent to which risk-based, goal setting process safety management will both ensure future compliance as well as helping reduce the risk and cost of future accidents. Safety, they understand needs to be more than a checklist of completed documentation and tasks performed. Every operator needs to obey the rules but they also need to operate with confidence, knowing that they have a robust safety culture which can stand up to scrutiny, both externally and from within.

To discuss any of the issues raised in this article in more detail contact Stephen Shaw, ERM’s lead partner for risk in the Americas, at [email protected].

Contact Us

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