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Seven ways to move process safety forward

Preventing major incidents and catastrophic events has long been a function of technically advanced systems and well-run management processes. And while industry has seen a degree of success, we are still far from where we need to be. To get there, we must implement a comprehensive approach to process safety that strengthens the connection between organizational and technical factors. The points below discuss what is needed to take catastrophic event prevention to the next level.

1. It Takes Leadership and Culture
Safety management systems alone are not enough to prevent catastrophic incidents. In fact, these systems are only as effective as the organizational culture in which they operate. A survey of the most recent major events shows that human interactions, communications, teamwork, and cultural factors contributed to technical breakdowns that triggered the disasters. With strong and focused leadership, we can shape a culture that supports systems, safe behaviors, and ultimately an outcome where no one gets hurt.

2. Four Ways to Better Process Safety
To eliminate catastrophic events, organizations must explicitly align and integrate culture and leadership with their process safety systems. Fundamentally, the four elements that leaders need to develop are Anticipation (the practice of enhancing organizational sensitivity to the "weak signals" that may indicate increased risk); Inquiry (making effective use of information to analyze, understand, and plan mitigation of risks); Execution (ensuring that hazard identification, assessment, and control efforts are followed as intended); and Resilience (the organization's ability to react in ways that prevent upset conditions from becoming catastrophic events, and then learning from the experience).

3. Understand the Difference between Personal and Process Safety
Leaders, executives, and frontline workers need to understand the differences between personal safety and process safety. While personal safety exposures are typically apparent in the workplace, mounting process safety issues can be developing silently in the background. Employees have a role in raising process concerns just as they would alert management to obstacles in the workplace that impact their personal safety.

4. Maintain a Sense of Vulnerability
Employees learn to accept as normal the risk they live with every day. Unfortunately their comfort level can lower the rigor and urgency with which policies and procedures are implemented and maintenance items are addressed. This does not, however, change the risks that lead to catastrophic events. Maintaining a healthy sense of respect for workplace exposures is critical to creating a culture where employees understand the importance of consistently following process management disciplines.

5. Leaders Need to Show They Care
Leaders have both systemic and symbolic roles with respect to engaging employees in preventing catastrophic events. The systemic role is to ensure that the "consequence systems" in the organization recognize and support employees who raise process safety issues, no matter how small they seem. The symbolic role is to promote the contributions that employees make to improving process safety, thereby demonstrating that management values their input.

6. Leverage Institutional Knowledge
Engineering controls and data analysis are bolstered when operators optimize practical knowledge of equipment and tasks. As many organizations face unprecedented levels of retirement, capturing what expert workers know has never been more crucial. Target upstream exposures by maintaining robust institutional knowledge and facilitating its use across time and location.

7. Gather the Right Data for Effective Action Planning
To truly advance process safety performance, organizations need access to data that is operationally valid. Metrics that measure precursors to catastrophic events are especially critical. Leaders should target relevant data that impacts on-the-ground realities. Risk control is a fluid endeavor, requiring information that reflects context and circumstances. Knowing what to look for and what questions to ask gives you the information you need to make the right decisions.

In Closing
Eliminating catastrophic events takes the entire organization working together to build a workplace where safety is more than just following the rules or completing a checklist. To prevent the types of disasters that destroy families and threatens the environment, we need to make process safety management a dedicated, comprehensive practice that supports leaders' and employees' abilities to be accountable, to raise issues, and identify and remove the underlying triggers of major incidents.

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