Think tank: Time for chemicals to adopt new process safety thinking

06 December 2010 00:00  [Source: ICB]

In the chemical process industries, safety should be top of the agenda, but in all parts of a company that is not always the case. Senior managers, particularly, are challenged to fully understand their assets, capital and otherwise, and the impact that decisions might have upon them.

The chemical industry is rightly proud of its safety record and of the sector-wide commitment to Responsible Care. But there is a growing concern among regulators that the industry is no longer at the forefront of process safety management.

"Over-simplified measures and targets have blinded managers and leaders to the really important measures of the true state of their assets," the chair of the UK's Health & Safety Executive (HSE), Judith Hackitt, said at a conference last week.

"At the most senior levels, there has been a growing lack of understanding and appreciation of the importance of process safety." Lagging indicators have taken the place of real-time measures of process safety and performance, she said, while information technology has bred a sense of complacency.

For the UK's health and safety regulator, there is growing concern about the impact of major changes in ownership and "contractorization" of activity across the process sectors: it is not always clear what documents and knowledge of issues such as basic design are passed on when assets change hands.

A "not broke, don't need to fix it" mentality at the most senior levels suggests that no one will take notice of leading safety indicators. "No matter how long the run of good 'incident free' operation, no one must ever become a leader in the major hazards industry without understanding and believing the realities of the processes they are dependent upon for their wealth and creation - and the importance of listening to those who are closest to those processes when they warn of what might go wrong," Hackitt said.

The HSE chair said the Buncefield oil terminal explosion in 2005, said to be the largest explosion in Europe since World War II, highlighted the failure to understand the true nature of major risk - "a failure to provide adequate focus, resources or expertise to maintain safety-critical barriers and a failure to respond to warning signs."

There were broad management and leadership failures, she said, increased by a lack of engineering support.

"The warning signs were there, but no one asked the right questions and there was no effective assurance system to pick up the underlying problems," she said.

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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