In this edition of the Chemical Industry Journal, we speak to Richard Roff and Neil Smith about their work with the Process Safety Management (PSM) Competence Programme Board, discussing the progress that’s been made and their hopes for the future.  

We last spoke to Richard, chair of the board last summer, and it has been a busy few months. The board will soon be hosting their third Process Safety Management summit in Manchester, held in partnership with the Process Safety Forum and the COMAH Strategic Forum. Entitled “Making good practice, common practice” the summit will bring together practitioners and executives from industry, stakeholder and regulatory bodies to illuminate best practice guidance and highlight the support available to industry from the various forums.

In his day job as Group Process Safety Manager at Costain Group PLC, Richard advises on the strategic implementation of process safety management techniques across all of their businesses – making him well placed to chair the board. The PSM Competence Programme Board is composed of senior industry representatives and stakeholders from trade associations such as the Chemical Industry Association, trade unions including Unite, professional bodies and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

“We try to attract as wide a range of voices on the board as possible,” says Richard, “we want the board to be representative of industry so that the resulting training programmes are looked after by a group interested in their use.”

The PSM Competence Programme Board was set up in 2010, in the light of major incidents such as the Texas city BP disaster and the Buncefield fire at the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal. The motivation for establishing the board was a desire to make business leaders in the hazardous industries aware of their critical role in establishing a safe culture and processes within their organisation. Senior leaders needed to better understand what process safety was, and their role in establishing those safe processes. These concerns were backed-up by the findings of the HSE in their investigations, which found a lack of knowledge and understanding amongst leadership teams.

“In essence, we are trying to make sure that the lessons we have learned the hard way in the process industries are widely understood, and that information is easy for organisations to access, in the hope that they won’t have to learn the same way,” continues Richard.

“The vision of the PSM Competence Programme Board is that people understand what might happen, understand their part in preventing catastrophic incidents through education, competence and knowledge.”

The leadership standard was the first in a series of industry standards subsequently written by the board, after that first standard was developed came the first course delivered in 2011, aimed at providing the knowledge, competency and skill needed to ensure safe working practices.

Since those early days, the programme’s scope has broadened to encompass not only leaders but also operators and managers working in hazardous industries and those working in other sectors entirely. As Richard explains, “some industries may feel that process safety has nothing to do with them, but if you detach the details and look at the concepts, these are not only relevant to high hazard industries like the chemical industry but to others too.

“The underlying principles of process safety can be applied to the management of hazards and risks in many sectors, and in companies of all sizes. Businesses need to understand that a catastrophic event is possible, to understand what preventative processes they have in place and whether those measures are working.”

The board has its roots in the work of the National Skills Academy Process Industries (part of the Cogent Skills Group), and these organisations share a common desire to develop the specialist skills required to manage businesses. The board has set about transforming the way knowledge and training needs are met, publishing their first UK Strategy for Competence in Process Safety Management in 2012, updated in 2015 – with feedback from the imminent summit informing the next three-year strategy period.

The PSM Competence Programme Board is in effect run by volunteers, supported by their employers, who allow them the time to carry forward their important safety work. The secretariat of the board is Cogent Skills, part of the Cogent Group, who are themselves a not-for-profit organisation with charitable status, which has a number of charitable objectives around the education, training and development needs of employers and employees.

Cogent has long been the custodian of the national occupational standards in the process safety arena, and don’t simply deliver the training themselves, but work with partner organisations to provide the training – all of whom are put through a stringent approval process. This robust approach to the recruitment of trainers maintains the high quality and effectiveness of the training.

Moreover, Cogent and their partners can tailor the courses to the specific needs of individual businesses, as they have done so for British Steel, Centrica, Costain, GSK, Johnson Matthey, National Grid, Tata Steel and Unilever. Taking the training in-house, and adapting it accordingly, means the training will reflect the terminology and hazards specific to that business – making it all the more useful and relevant.

Taking the lead in this bespoke training is Neil Smith, Head of Workforce Development at Cogent Skills and a founder member of the PSM Competence Programme Board. In addition to over 20 years’ experience leading and delivering skills and competence development programmes, Neil is no stranger to hazardous operations.

Neil’s early career as an aircraft engineering artificer and flying maintainer in the Royal Navy on ASW and Commando Helicopter Squadrons means he is uniquely placed to understand the value of robust process safety. His early career saw him spend two winters inside the Arctic Circle, with deployments in the European theatre of operations, the Mediterranean, the Far East and the Gulf, primarily supporting mountain flying and desert operations.

Right from the start Neil has been involved in the development of the PSM training standards and ensuring that the standards are supported by appropriate training provision. Highlighting the progress that has been made since the board was established in 2010, Neil says, “It has been great to see participating employers reporting that their number of small-scale incidents has halved and this is particularly significant given the pattern that has emerged historically of small incidents being the precursors to more serious incidents.”

Where some initiatives cause initial excitement and then fizzle away shortly afterwards, the board has now been meeting monthly for over seven years, and their industry standards and training have provided a lasting legacy. The work of the board says Neil has brought about a whole new cultural awareness and understanding. “Previously, industry training tended to focus on the technical aspects of a job and not set these in the context of process safety. Now there is a much greater understanding of the efficacy of process safety, of what processes should be in place and why.”

The growth in participant numbers since the first course was established has been huge. To date, around 10,000 people have attended the PSM Competence Programme Board’s training programmes, including 180 companies that run COMAH facilities and around 100 companies that sit outside the COMAH regulatory framework.

Moving forward the board is focused on engaging more organisations in their industry-created, industry-approved training, with the hope of making good practice, common practice, in the chemical industry and beyond, and vastly reducing the likelihood of any further serious incidents.