November 11, 2010

Process safety in the 21st Century

Having spent 30 years in the chemical industry, I am trying to hazard a guess on the direction of process safety in the 21st century:
1.The human being will become more and more the focus in process safety. Technical competency of individuals is fast decreasing and job hopping means that process safety knowledge is fragmented in an organisation.
2.Plants are becoming more and more hi tech with control systems and instruments with wireless technology and “smart” technology while the human being is becoming “unsmarter”.
3.As organisation become larger and larger, the management of process safety is getting lost somewhere in between the layers of communication. While leading process safety indicators are good in highlighting problem areas, the focus on these indicators is also human dependent and with directors on boards of companies changing, this focus gets shifted from time to time.
4.There will be Low frequency High Potential accidents happening in large organisations. The BP case is just a teaser. Even in organisations that manage their process safety closely, one slip is enough.Managing to avoid this “slip” will become tougher and tougher in this “flat world”.
5.Fortunately or unfortunately we are in an age of rapid technology change. Plant operators should be careful to select the technologies they need and more importantly to “deselect” the technologies they do not need. One mans bread may be the other man’s burnt toast!
6.To become more and more competitive, organizations are cutting costs. While there is nothing wrong in cutting costs, I see a drastic decrease in in-house competency to assess the technical issues while cutting costs.
7.There will be a number of security issues with chemical plants as control technologies change.
8.Competency of people is becoming a major issue. Simulator training of plant operators may become a legal requirement soon in many countries!

I do not want to bore you with this monologue, but how do we avoid this? Top management must continually have a feel of what is going on at the ground level. There is no better solution that the old fashioned way of walking the talk by periodically meeting people at ground zero and observing what their problems are! I’m signing off…..!


  1. Karthik,
    I also feel, as the complexity increases , each engineer lives in a Silos of his system and domain.We need a group of people in every organization who can look at the system as a whole and continually asses the potential hazard.

  2. Unless the Performance matrix (not only tasks but also remuneration) of a Line Manager/Operation Manager/Operator is linked to Process Safety and Safety performance, there will be difficulty in actively imbibing a Systems level thinking in Process Safety. This is important purely from the context that the present day worker focuses more on the listed items in his/her Performance matrix and often avoids extra effort especially when it comes to Safety.