November 2017


Safety: Process safety and risk management— An industry view

In 2017, Petrotechnics released its process safety and risk management (PSM) survey.

Jones, S., Petrotechnics

In 2017, Petrotechnics released its process safety and risk management (PSM) survey. The survey respondents were senior leaders in the fields of process safety, asset integrity and operational risk management in the hydrocarbon industry. The survey produced some interesting and occasionally startling insights into the state of operational risk and safety management. The issues focused on the culture of safety, the real-world experience of risk, the various factors that affect and drive safety performance, and the role of systems and tools in enabling the appropriate levels of safety and risk management.

FIG. 1. Facts regarding the PSM survey respondents.
FIG. 1. Facts regarding the PSM survey respondents.

Methodology and participants

The PSM survey was conducted online between June 14 and July 27 of this year. More than 200 individuals took part, 50% of whom have worked in process safety, asset integrity and operational risk for more than 15 yr (FIG. 1).

The findings represent the opinions of process safety professionals. Their focus is on major accident hazards and how to eliminate the low-frequency, high-consequence events that can have devastating impacts to assets.

A key component in operational excellence

The connection between process safety and operational excellence (OE) is increasingly recognized. OE is the pursuit of world-class performance that is delivered by enabling everyone within the organization to consistently make the most effective operational decisions, considering a fully integrated picture of the risk, cost and productivity of operational reality.

Achieving OE was given as a main driver for improving safety performance for 61% of survey participants. However, 59% believe that process safety is not always fully incorporated within an organization’s OE strategy.

At 71%, the top driver for improving safety performance was reducing operational and major accident hazard (MAH) risk. However, despite the importance placed on reducing MAH risk, 57% of the survey’s respondents said companies do not always have a defined roadmap in place for advancing safety performance.

Although advancing safety performance and risk reduction is almost always a stated goal in company literature and annual reports, evidence from the 2017 survey indicates that companies do not have readily accessible and carefully structured plans in place to achieve that goal. In fact, 61% believe companies do not have well-defined safety performance measures, including leading and lagging safety indicators. Although reducing MAH risk is considered a major driver for improving safety performance, 77% believe that companies do not always maintain a sense of vulnerability about exposure to MAH risk. Interestingly, only 31% made a connection between improving safety performance and reducing operational costs.

If OE is thought about in terms of balancing the competing demands of effective production, then the key to maximizing OE benefits lies in how we visualize risk. If decision-making can be prioritized based on a true picture of risk, then the best use can be made of the available resources.

Building a safety culture

When asked to rate the factors with the greatest impact on PSM, organizational culture was the top of the list—cited by 86% of respondents. It was followed by maintenance and internal procedures (76% each). However, 61% said that developing a safety culture was a challenge to delivering effective PSM—followed by 57% who said leadership support was a challenge.

A more detailed analysis on the role of leadership and culture showed that although corporate board members often say that safety is their highest priority, that message has not necessarily been well communicated or followed in the company. Only 36% of respondents indicated that corporate or board priorities are a driver for improving safety performance.

Most respondents (65%) felt that the C-suite has little to no understanding of the health of process safety barriers and their importance. The majority (51%) also felt that the C-suite is responsible for understanding where there is risk, but not for measuring and evaluating its impact, or for managing and mitigating its impact.

Most respondents believe frontline staff, including shift supervisors, operations supervisors and maintenance supervisors, are responsible for understanding, measuring, evaluating, managing and mitigating operational risk. The overwhelming majority also believe that maintenance managers have a responsibility for almost every aspect of operational risk management—greater than both frontline safety supervisors and senior safety managers.

The role of planners and schedulers is noteworthy, as well. Most respondents believe that these roles need to understand the risk levels on a given plant or facility and plan/schedule work accordingly. However, with a vast list of equipment to maintain and resources to allocate, they are lacking the insight that this three-dimensional game of chess requires.

Equally significant is functional leadership and awareness of the health of safety barriers, which in the view of survey participants is much lower than the awareness of operational risk.

This information suggests that process safety and frontline operations must be better connected, and the relationship between the two needs to be better understood. Operators must ensure that everyone across the business understands and manages risk against the same criteria, as well as hold a practical understanding of how their decisions directly or indirectly influence the risk picture.

Recognizing the potential sources of risk, and how they can accumulate, are a key challenge that requires a “common currency” approach to managing the disparate sources of data. In this way, operators can construct leading indicators that provide actionable insights.

Connecting the enterprise

Under the anonymity of the survey, participants provided comments regarding why incidents and accidents still happen within the industry. Some of these telling statements include:

  • “Process safety is specialized knowledge, not typically understood by operations and maintenance, leading to implementation gaps.”
  • “Production takes priority over safety, which often leads to shortcuts and safety incidents, despite corporate safety policies.”
  • “Corporate lip service to PSM policies are not backed up with effective and efficient planned preventative maintenance.”

These statements were not the only reasons given, but they are indicative of a disconnect between process safety and frontline operations, and the need for these two functions to be better understood. They also add evidence to the inherent contradictions between safety culture and safety ambitions. Approximately 70% of the respondents acknowledged that gaps exist between the intent of process safety planning and what happens at the plant or asset.

This disconnect gets to the heart of the PSM challenge. There is a well-established body of mature engineering science around process safety that defines how to design and operate plants to keep assets and people secure, to keep process fluids in pipes and to stop loss of primary containment, which could escalate into a major accident. However, despite the specifications arising from this body of knowledge, once the facility is built and operating, safety barriers begin to degrade over time.

This degradation was acknowledged by 70% of respondents, who believe or have observed that there is a measurable change in the level of risk exposure on the plant between planned PSM hazard review periods. As previously noted, 61% of respondents confirmed that companies do not always have well-defined leading and lagging safety indicators. These two facts represent a challenge for operators—risk levels change between reviews, but very few indicators are in place to monitor how risk is changing.

Additionally, only 6% of respondents believe their companies are fully up-to-date with scheduled safety-critical maintenance.

Better information, better decisions

The survey observed gaps between operational intent and operational reality, as well as between policy and implementation. As one senior leader put it, “Risks are not fully understood.”

For example, 45% noted that communicating process safety principles to the frontline was a challenge to delivering effective PSM, and 66% believe that operations personnel do not always understand the aspects of their jobs that are most critical to managing process safety risk.

To close these gaps, everyone within an organization needs to be armed with the right information so they can make better, more informed decisions. There is no shortage of information. For example, only 11% suggest that lack of data is a challenge for delivering effective PSM. In addition, only 11% see a shortage of IT support as a challenge.

The ability to bring together meaningful operations technology (OT) data with intuitive real-time IT is imperative. The survey showed that although some progress has been made on this front, the industry still has a long way to go. For example:

  • 74% do not establish effective solutions for monitoring and managing the combined risk arising from operational activities, impaired health of process safety barriers
    and other management system deficiencies
  • 90% believe that risk awareness and safety would be improved if the workforce and management had access
    to real-time process safety risk indicators on the plant—a significant increase from 73% in 2016.

This challenge facing operators was neatly summed up by one of our respondents: “It is important that we understand hazards on a real-time basis and that the continual state of barriers is maintained as designed to reduce incidents.”

A single, shared view

The survey indicated important gaps in organizations’ ability to develop a single, shared view of the operational reality. Ensuring that the right information about hazards and risk are available in a format that can be accessed, consumed, understood and used to support OE decision-making from boardroom to frontline, is essential to reducing exposure to MAH risk.

The good news is that process safety, operational risk and asset integrity professionals understand the complex nature of the challenges they face, and the organizational, cultural and technological hurdles to overcome. They also appreciate that tools and systems can provide real-time safety analysis and summaries. Approximately 80% of respondents believe that a combination of regulations and technology have made their industry safer. The goal is to build on that, and deploy the systems that enable organizations to bring PSM into the fold of OE. HP

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