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Effective barrier management – a key component of sustainable process safety performance

09 November 2014

By W Ian Hamilton and Dr Martyn Ramsden

The previous issue of Platform carried an article on the link between process safety and sustainability in the oil and gas industry.  It was argued that process safety management (PSM) should take a more prominent role in a company’s sustainability program and that there should be encouragement to develop and report on leading indicators of PSM.

In this article we continue to explore the link between process safety and sustainability by looking in more detail at the role played by human and organizational reliability alongside technical safety. In our experience, this means examining the safety critical tasks deemed essential for putting up effective barriers to a major incident. By measuring the success of these tasks as part of a Barrier Management Plan (BMP), we can deliver and report on some leading indicators of effective PSM.

Building a safety culture
At the heart of any drive to reduce the risk of a major incident is a company’s process safety culture. This is well accepted across the oil and gas industry but sometimes difficult to maintain under the pressures of operating. Factors such as leadership, training, manpower planning and an understanding of the safety critical tasks on a particular facility are all important components of an effective process safety culture.

An operator who does not understand the significance of these and other elements of major accident control may be presiding over a business that is fundamentally unsustainable. The questions continually facing our clients are how do you establish and maintain a culture that delivers effective PSM and reduces the overall risk profile of the asset?  

A number of factors are essential to the development of the right PSM culture.  Firstly the company needs to identify all major accident hazards and ensure that the right barriers are in place both to prevent and mitigate any loss of control. Secondly, all safety critical tasks should be identified prior to an integrated ‘people and processes’ approach to their management.  Thirdly, this integrated approach should lead to the creation of a set of leading indications of effective PSM which delivers both technical safety and improved safety culture. 

Relying on competent people
Process safety barriers are the control measures that help to prevent or mitigate a major accident. These can be represented by using a bowtie diagram, which is a useful way to visualize the management of all process safety hazards. The barrier may be a piece of equipment such as primary containment pipework or a storage vessel, or instrumentation equipment to monitor process conditions, or shut-down/blow-down equipment for use in an emergency. These safety critical elements will either be operated by a person, or must be regularly inspected and maintained by people.  These operations and maintenance actions are therefore safety critical tasks demanding a certain standard of human performance to reduce the risk of a major incident.

Companies who aspire to PSM excellence, will want to ensure that the right barriers are in place with all safety critical tasks identified.  In addition, they will also have the appropriate system of inspection, maintenance and training in place to ensure PSM remains live and dynamic. Ensuring that safety critical tasks continue to be performed by competent and suitably qualified people is key to the successful execution of this process.

Developing a Barrier Management Plan
The human element of barrier performance must therefore be monitored and carefully managed to reduce the risk of a major incident. If the human contribution is neglected, barriers can become weakened, increasing the risk of a major incident.  For example, the design of the system may demand that the operator applies a safety measure, such as the activation of a blowout preventer (BOP).  Poor ergonomics might make the performance of this task unnecessarily difficult, or weaknesses in procedures and decision-making could delay or even prevent the performance of this safety critical task.  Equally, weaknesses in the inspection and maintenance processes might mean that, even if activated, the BOP may fail to operate properly.  In short, barrier performance relies on human and organizational performance at many levels and these interactions should be understood.

Increasingly, ERM’s Human Factors consultants are commissioned to work with our clients at this ‘people process’ interchange to identify safety critical tasks and to develop BMPs that specify the operational controls needed to ensure effective PSM.  They include such criteria as the responsibility for performing a particular task, the methods of performance, and the competence of those involved.  So the BMP specifies a range of factors to ensure the reliability of a control. 

Leading indicators of process safety
Ultimately, the BMP can provide a set of leading indicators that allows an insight into the performance of PSM. These indicators will include such factors as manpower levels, competency records, compliance metrics, test measures and defect tracking systems.  A clear focus on these indicators that will involve target setting, should lead to a more effective process safety culture.  In this situation, operators will have clear objectives and defined safety responsibilities alongside the skills and performance goals needed to do a proper job.

Ian Hamilton is a Partner in ERM’s Risk Management practice and head of Human Factors. If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, please contact Ian at ian.hamilton@erm.com.  Martyn Ramsden is a Technical Fellow based in Manchester, UK. He can be contacted at martyn.ramsden@erm.com.

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