Safety Moment #8: Process Safety in Different Industries

 Process Safety in Different Industries

Process Safety Different Industries. During the course of my career I have had the opportunity and privilege of working in many different sections of the energy and process industries. And wherever I have worked the refrain has always been, “But we’re different, you know”. What the speaker is saying is that his or her particular industry is so special that the professionals in it have little to learn from other industries regarding process safety. In all cases my reply has been, “No you’re not.”

Process Safety Management professionals can learn a lot by looking at how other industries have managed issues that look different from theirs, but are actually not all that different.

Different Industries

Some of the unique features to do with safety in different industries are:

  • Oil Refineries are capable of very flexible operations — I once had a technician tell me that he could put gasoline in the refinery manager’s coffee cup just by opening and closing valves. And I believe him.
  • Offshore personnel have to fight fires with what they have — they cannot call on an outside fire department to help them. And there are no easy escape routes in the event of a large fire.
  • Chemical Plants are often very sensitive to small amounts of contamination in the feedstocks. And they typically have to handle highly corrosive chemicals through the use of exotic materials of construction.
  • Onshore Pipelines that transport oil and gas are mostly in the public domain. Therefore any leak is automatically an environmental concern.

An example of the potential for learning from one another came up during the last year.I have been working on the edges of the railroad industry (www.ashlandrail.com). Through this work I have had many contacts with railroad professionals, and I have enjoyed it. But they are all totally consistent in their agreement that they have little or nothing to learn from the process industries regarding safety management, even though they transport most of the hazardous chemicals manufactured by the chemical industry. Their unspoken message was, “Railroads are different, you know”. No they’re not.

Fukushimi-Daiichi lessons for the process industries

Consider the enormous learnings that Fukushima-Daiichi has for all industries.

First, the presence of backup systems is of new value in the face of a “common cause” event, i.e., a single cause that can two or more supposedly independent systems to fail. (For those familiar with Fault Tree terminology, it’s a perfect example of assuming the integrity of an ‘AND’ Gate for granted.)

Second, the concept of “Fail Dangerous” vs. “Fail Safe” is well illustrated. Yet, were one to ask if the manager of a drilling rig to whether the facility is “fail safe” or “fail dangerous” the question would probably draw a blank look. But the reality is that offshore drilling is (mostly) “fail dangerous” whereas offshore production is (mostly) “fail safe”.

Management Behavior-Based Safety

I wonder if the source of this “We’re different, you know” lies in some sort of tribalism, confirmation bias and group-think. Some years ago we made great progress with the introduction of Behavior-Based Safety programs at the working level. We recognized that we cannot change people, but we can change their behaviors. Maybe there is a need a comparable program for oil industry professionals and managers. Programs that help them see what others are doing could break mental barriers.

Black Swans

Safety in different industries Black Swan concept


The book Black Swan has generated a lot of interest to do with unanticipated, catastrophic events. The then CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, said that the Deepwater Horizon blowout was a black swan. He was both right and wrong; it was a black swan to him in his seclusion, but it could have been predicted and avoided had BP had better management systems.

Process Safety Management Elements

The commonality of industry issues can be seen by looking at the elements of a typical Process Safety Management (PSM) program.

  1. Process Safety Culture
  2. Compliance
  3. Competence
  4. Workforce Involvement
  5. Stakeholder Outreach
  6. Knowledge Management
  7. Hazard Identification / Risk
  8. Operating Procedures
  9. Safe Work Practices
  10. Asset Integrity / Reliability
  11. Contractor Management
  12. Training / Performance
  13. Management of Change
  14. Operational Readiness
  15. Conduct of Operations
  16. Emergency Management
  17. Incident Investigation
  18. Measurement and Metrics
  19. Auditing
  20. Management Review

Each industry will have its own structure for each of these elements, particularly Element 6 'Knowledge Management’ (what OSHA calls "Process Safety Information"). But the overall management structure does not vary all that much because PSM is a management program, not a technology program.