Safety Gaps: Good Practice is Still Not Common Practice

Article by Ken Rivers CEng FIChemE

Ken Rivers, Chair of the COMAH Strategic Forum, shares his views on how IChemE can help improve safety more widely

OVER the last seven years, I have been involved in bringing regulators and industry together in the UK to address the challenges of process safety in the chemicals sector.

The common aim of the UK’s Control of Major Accidents Hazards (COMAH) Strategic Forum has been to establish a thriving, safe and sustainable sector with a regulatory regime that supports business growth, high standards and strong compliance. This is enshrined in the Forum’s seven-point vision statement, which includes aspirations for process safety lessons to be embedded in the way businesses routinely manage major accident hazards; and for businesses to report meaningful information on their performance in managing major accident risks, sharing across sectors.

The bigger question though was what would have the most impact on closing the gap between current reality and our ambitious vision for the future? After a lot of thought and discussion, we recognised that the biggest challenge is making good practice into common practice.

You may find that conclusion surprising. You may ask: is good practice not already in common use? Unfortunately, it isn’t. If you think about it, most – if not all – major incidents have causes that we have seen in earlier events. Their remedies and cures have been identified, and when applied in practice have been shown to work.

Armoury of good practice

So, this is not about creating new tools and processes, but rather making sure that the existing armoury of good practice is known, available and used across industry.

The problem appears to be that we do not apply these painfully-learnt lessons continuously, consistently or comprehensively enough.

My view is that this is a systemic, persistent and endemic issue which is eroding the incredible journey that the process industries and our profession have been on over the last 40 years or more. We have grappled with and grasped the lessons from explosions, toxic releases, and fires that have killed, maimed and wounded people, done untold damage to the environment, generated huge economic cost and disruption, and destroyed communities and businesses. And yet knowing all of that, we still repeat the same mistakes. We still haven’t cracked how to fully apply the knowledge and insight which is available and can demonstrably help. We need to better understand the barriers to applying the available knowledge in the workplace so that we can address them.

So my feeling is that establishing good practice as common practice will remain one of the most important challenges we face. It has been recognised as such by IChemE’s Major Hazards Committee1, which includes representatives from across the Institution’s safety-related activities, including the IChemE Safety Centre, Safety and Loss Prevention SIG, safety publications, and the Hazards conference.

The committee has commissioned a working group to identify potential projects that can build on the extensive body of knowledge IChemE has acquired over many years and make it more accessible, more meaningful and more useful to practitioners. There is a wealth of experience and insight in IChemE’s publications, training material, case studies, and conference material, on which we can draw. The Knowledge Hub that IChemE launched last year contains thousands of searchable resources and shows how we can better facilitate access to, and use, these rich resources.

Similarly, validating and recognising valuable learning and good practice by a seal of approval could help encourage their use. This may be an area that IChemE (with others) might contribute in terms of acknowledging technical guidance and competence frameworks and standards.

In parallel, we need to consider how we can stimulate interest and engagement in those who may not be aware but who need to be. This is a big problem in itself. We often – and without realising it – primarily talk to those who are already interested and want to know more about safety. The bigger challenge (and greater impact) could come from engaging the unengaged. I am really encouraged by the opportunities that social media can bring. IChemE is already showing the way through our open webinars and stimulating articles on process safety through the likes of LinkedIn and Twitter, which are already starting to open up new channels and generate new connections.

Article by Ken Rivers CEng FIChemE

Chair, UK’s Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Strategic Forum; member of the Industry Safety Steering Group monitoring the follow up to the Building and Fire regulations review post Grenfell; and former President of IChemE.

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