Safety Moment #8: “But We’re Different, You Know”

Supercilious attitude

Process safety consultants usually find themselves working for a range of different companies and industries. (This variety is one of the most satisfying aspects of the work.) And, wherever they work the run across the statement, “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 most cases the most appropriate reply to the above statement is, “No you’re not.” The reality is that many, indeed most, process safety issues are common to a very wide range of industries and companies.

Fundamentally, process safety management is about management — it is not about specific technologies or industries. For example, if a manager develops and implements an effective Management of Change program then it is likely that he or she will find that his expertise applies to a broad range of facilities. Similarly with hazards analysis — although different industries may prefer to use their own methods for identifying hazards, the general principles of risk analysis and management remain the same.

Not only do different industries have much in common, they can learn from one another by looking at looking at how other industries have managed issues that are similar, but not identical, to their own. Articles and Safety Moments that show how industries can provide learnings for one another include:

Different Industries

Although there is a good deal of overlap between industries, each does have its unique features, some of which are described below.

  • Oil Refineries are capable of very flexible operations. During the course of one HAZOP (Hazard and Operability Study) one of the team members — a highly experienced technician, stated that he could put gasoline in the refinery manager’s coffee cup just by opening and closing valves.
  • On Offshore Oil and Gas facilities 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 frequently have to handle highly corrosive chemicals, and so they use 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, and is likely to draw a good deal of adverse publicity.


Process safety insights and techniques can be applied to industries that would seem at first sight to have little in common with the process and energy industries. Yet even here there is considerable overlap.

The railroad business in an old one and has a strong culture, and so tends easily toward the, “But we’re different, you know” way of thinking. And some of their challenges — particularly to do with train/automobile collisions at railroad crossings — are special and near-unique. Yet, the worst-case scenario for a freight railroad has to do with the release of highly hazardous chemicals from tank cars. The analysis of such an event is very much a process safety management issue.


The pictures are of tank cars that rolled into a river bed in Lynchburg, VA in the year 2014. Approximately 50,000 gallons of crude oil were spilled — some of it burned and some of it floated away down the river. They were lucky — had the cars rolled the other way they would have hit a business area and restaurants at which people were having lunch (and there was a school nearby).

Lynchburg train derailment and fire


Lynchburg train derailment and fire

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