Occupational safety aims at avoiding workplace injuries and ensuring a safe and healthy work environment. It utilizes rules, training and personal protective equipment to achieve that goal. It is an individual responsibility of each and every worker. Companies also have a responsibility to support and promote occupational safety; codes and regulations are in place to help ensure this. The corporate support for occupational safety varies somewhat depending on the type of industry and its associated hazards.
Why does an employer care about occupational safety? Concern for safety drives effective teamwork and solidarity. Alternatively, if workers cannot look after their own health and safety, how can they be responsible in an operating plant? Make no mistake about it — occupational safety initiatives are effective and remain an important pillar in industry.
Such initiatives include a moral responsibility to protect workers, which takes us to the subject of process safety. Unlike occupational safety, process safety deals with protecting workers who have no direct control over hazards they might be exposed to. That is not to suggest that process workers are not responsible for their work. However, others who are not directly involved with immediate hazards could nevertheless be impacted should something go wrong. One way of dealing with this challenge is close and timely communication across different disciplines, trades and organizational boundaries about current conditions — what is referred to as a “management system,” a framework of activities that addresses a common contributor to past incidents. Several management systems or elements comprise a process safety program, such as risk assessment, operating procedures, process safety information and management of change. If these systems are to add value they must be implanted at the field level and practiced on a daily basis. They must not reside in an office building.
On an industrial worksite, many workers are directly engaged in the use of tools and equipment. Their training in the use of these devices is the essence of occupational safety. On the other hand, a process safety event may release hazardous material or energy over a wide area and can catch workers unawares, especially if they were not directly involved with the equipment that caused the release. Such workers have no recourse other than to retreat to a safe area — if that option is viable.
How can an operation justify placing workers in harm’s way with no means of defence? It cannot be done, which is the essence of process safety. Does a good process safety program displace or negate the need for an occupational safety program? The answer is clearly no. Process safety does not address normal workplace injuries nor does it examine industrial hygiene issues such as illness or disease.
Process safety is about systems. It must be driven from the top of a corporation or operating organization. The behaviour of workers during normal as well as unusual situations must be defined and supported with training, practices and procedures. The resulting workplace culture will place safety and survival ahead of daily production targets.
What does process safety look like in a typical operating plant environment and how does it differ from occupational safety? Occupational safety is taught to all staff upon employment and is typically supported by trained safety officers. These individuals serve as auditors and facilitators in the workplace. They answer questions and observe activities. They are dedicated and highly visible.
In contrast, process safety is a line function closely integrated into the operation. Resources dedicated to this function should provide more of a coordinating role, ensuring that important activities are assigned to people in operating roles. A small group of technical specialists and engineers often help with the design and evaluation of physical safeguards. If that technical resource group becomes too large the ownership and focus on process safety could easily shift from the operation to the office and process safety benefits will not be realized.
A single program to manage both process safety and occupational safety may appear to have economic benefits but it is often incapable of addressing the key focus areas of either. Process safety and occupational safety draw on different skill sets. They must not compete for resources.
Brian D. Kelly, PEng, is the principal of BriRisk Consulting Ltd. in Calgary.