Progress: our vision for process safety management

Progress: our vision for process safety management

In this edition of the Chemical Industry Journal we discuss process safety with Richard Roff an engineer with experience in a number of major hazard industries and Chair of the Process Safety Management (PSM) Competence Project Board.

Richard is a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers working for Costain as head of Process Safety. He advises the group on the strategic implementation of process safety management techniques across all of its sectors and service lines but with particular focus on contracts with clients whose operations could suffer potentially catastrophic incidents.

The PSM Competence Programme Board brings together senior industry representatives and stakeholders from trade associations, professional bodies and the Health & Safety Executive to act as proactive advocates of a campaign to make high hazard industries a safer place to work. The Board provides guidance and expert advice on the development of national training standards for process safety management which underpin cutting-edge training courses. It has also published a National Strategy for Competence in Process Safety Management which can be found via the PSM Competence Programme Board webpage, hosted by Cogent Skills.

A strategy for all

A little over two years ago, the PSM Competence Project Board launched an update to its National Strategy for Competence in Process Safety Management to help UK companies to manage hazards with the potential for major or catastrophic incidents that could cause widespread harm to workers, to the public or to the environment. The strategy’s purpose was simple: To support employers in managing process safety and improving staff competence through targeted quality-assured training, helping companies to obtain the right knowledge and skills at all organisational levels to better manage catastrophic incident hazards and therefore to improve process safety performance across their businesses.

Whilst significant progress has been made, much more can be done. We are pleased that the Chemical Industry Journal is placing an emphasis on process safety management as we strive to take the national campaign to new organisations across the UK – even to organisations that may believe process safety isn’t for them.

It may be tempting to think that events with large losses of life or other major damage can only occur at large scale operations but, on the contrary, business and local economic impacts may well be more significant in smaller enterprises where even small losses might lead to the end of operations, therefore affecting livelihoods and communities beyond those directly involved. Indeed, smaller incidents continue to occur and we can and should do more to prevent these.

In May 2017, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the USA issued the report, Process Safety Management for Small Businesses, it reported that, “Catastrophic highly hazardous chemical release events continue to occur among smaller companies.” It said one study estimated that employers with 1-25 employees are 47 times more likely to have a release and 17 times more likely to suffer an injury, per employee, than facilities with 1,500 or more employees. It also stated that the release of highly hazardous chemicals not only risks employee safety, but the safety of surrounding populations and structures because small businesses often are located in populated areas. Indeed, in our recent history in the UK we have witnessed major incidents at smaller companies; the Bosley Wood Flour Mill explosion, SP Plastics (stored fireworks) explosion and a major blaze at a plastic waste recycling plant in Stoke on Trent. All stark reminders that the practise of process safety management applies to organisations of all sizes. Although full details will emerge only after proper investigation, the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in London suggests there may be room for process safety thinking in sectors beyond those traditionally associated with these approaches.

For any organisation unsure about where to begin their process safety journey there is a wealth of information online. There are also organisations such as Cogent Skills, Health & Safety Executive, Chemical Industry Association, UKPIA, Tank Storage Association and UKPPLG, which are all willing to provide advice and guidance, and throughout the year there are numerous conferences, events and networking opportunities designed to share best practise.

Building the right culture improves safety performance

The process industries increasingly recognise the importance of the cultural aspects of process safety management. This is due in part to findings from investigations into major disasters in those sectors; Texas City, Chernobyl, Challenger and Columbia investigations concluded that systems broke down catastrophically, despite the use of complex engineering and technical safeguards. These disasters were not primarily caused by engineering failures, but by the action or inaction of the people running the system in the context of their organisations.

To prevent the harm that can be caused by catastrophic incidents, the PSM Competence Programme Board wishes to drive home the importance of having the right culture. A properly-focussed process safety culture considers competence, perceptions, attitudes, values and behaviours of the employees throughout the organisation; without doubt, a positive process safety culture depends on its people, especially leaders in the organisation who can drive change and adopt the right standards so that process safety management becomes an integral part of ‘business as usual’.

Boardroom decisions have a direct bearing on process safety outcomes and the Board sets the vision and culture for the entire organisation. Effective governance on process safety is essential for a sustainable business performance. Many companies in high-hazard sectors have made important strides in establishing the necessary corporate culture and leadership to minimise the frequency and severity of process safety incidents and this progress is extremely pleasing.

The PSM Competence Programme Board has overseen the creation of a framework of industry-assured competence standards and supporting training courses, designed to allow employers to apply consistent approaches and deliver the organisational competence required to manage process safety risks, not only contributing to compliance with regulation but also bringing business benefits from loss reduction. It would be prudent for organisations to take a periodic check of their safety culture in order to understand whether safety programmes are working reliably to a high level and to understand if the workforce is truly engaged.

When engaging with senior leaders I often ask the question ’how will you know what impact your business decisions have on the level of risk at your sites?’ – and not just now, but several years into the future? This brings focus on understanding the consequences of leaders’ decisions.

Leadership is vital, because it is central to the culture of an organisation, and it is the culture that influences employee behaviour and safety. Process safety tasks can be delegated, yet responsibility and accountability should always remain with the senior leaders, so it is essential that they promote an environment which encourages safe behaviour. It is extremely important to empower employees, to make it ‘safe’ for staff to report issues and to respect and reward them for doing so.

I am a firm believer in this top-down approach; In Costain, our education programme for process safety, began with senior leaders and directors and has been cascaded throughout the organisation across diverse sectors and job roles. We have used the programme of training courses produced through the PSM competence board to give us quality assurance and consistency

On a final note…

I would like to reach out to major accident hazard organisations to engage with the PSM Competence Programme Board to increase its membership and to improve engagement with trade associations whose members process or handle hazardous substances or manage major accident hazards. My contact details are available on the PSM Competence Programme Board webpage and I would encourage you to contact me if your organisation would like to be part of the movement to safeguard people and the environment and to promote UK major hazard industries’ best practices on a global scale.