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February 9, 2009

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Process Safety Explained

In the major-hazards sectors, ensuring your processes are as safe as possible can seem a very technical exercise. But, as Jeremy Bending explains, leaving management of such issues to the ‘process-safety experts’ is likely to leave a company’s workforce disengaged from the risks involved.

‘Process safety’ is in danger of becoming the latest safety bandwagon. People seem to be applying the term to all manner of processes, possibly in an effort to grab senior management’s attention. However, as highlighted at last year’s HSE conference, ‘Leading from the top — avoiding major incidents’,1 there is some confusion as to what is meant by it.

Most people recognise personal safety issues such as slips, trips and falls, manual handling, and machinery safety. They’re the types of everyday hazards we can easily relate to and, if we put our minds to it, we can see how to reduce the risks. We can also easily measure and compare performance using metrics such as lost-time injury rates, and management can make significant improvements quickly.

But with process safety, it’s hard to get into perspective catastrophic events that are extremely unlikely to occur. The controls can seem very technical, and measurement of performance can’t rely on counting incidents. It’s also about long-term investment for long-term benefits. As such, companies can make the mistake of ‘leaving it to the experts’. The real challenge, however, is getting the whole company engaged in process-safety issues, in the same way that everyone has a responsibility for personal safety.

What’s in a name?

From an intellectual perspective, it can be argued that labelling risks as ‘process’ and ‘personal’ safety is unnecessary. A company creates risks that can harm people or the environment and needs to ensure those risks are properly managed. The key to effective risk management is to deal with your risks on a consistent basis and not to create artificial silos that mean risks are considered in different ways.

Sometimes, however, people need more definition to help them understand an issue. At National Grid, which owns and operates gas and electricity networks in Great Britain and the United States, process safety is viewed from the angle of any hazard that can give rise to major accidents involving the release of potentially dangerous materials, the release of energy (such as fires and explosions), or both. These hazards can result in multiple injuries and fatalities, as well as substantial economic, property, and environmental damage. The control measures relating to such hazards aim to ensure the likelihood of such an incident remains low, and the key to control is to contain the hazardous substances in the vessels and pipes.

The components necessary to manage process safety are the same as those used to manage any safety risk. You need:

  • assets that are properly designed, constructed, operated, inspected, and maintained;
  • a safety management system that sets clear objectives, establishes responsibilities and accountabilities, implements effective risk-control systems, monitors performance, and audits and reviews the effectiveness of the system; and
  • a culture that encourages the right behaviours and supports everyone to make a contribution to improved safety.

Risk management is used to decide how these three elements work together to deliver a safe outcome.

While all three of these elements are used to control any safety risk, the emphasis between the three will be different, depending on the type of risk. For example, process safety usually places more emphasis on asset integrity than behavioural issues, compared with personal safety.


Great safety needs great leadership, and this is just as true of process safety as any other type. But there is a risk that leadership confines its focus to ‘personal safety’ because it’s often simpler to understand.

People pick up very quickly the issues leaders talk about, where they spend their time, and what they’re passionate about. An absence of demonstrable leadership on process safety will inevitably affect people’s perceptions on the importance the company attaches to it, and ultimately the safety performance.

To help show leadership on this issue, a number of straightforward steps can be taken, including:

  • providing training and awareness for leaders on process safety to demystify it and give them the confidence to talk about it;
  • ensuring that leaders get out on site to talk to people about process safety, asking questions, and following up responses;
  • ensuring process safety is covered at management meetings, monitoring trends, and following up particular incidents;
  • personally responding to questions and issues raised by people on process safety rather than just redirecting them to the experts;
  • publishing a signed Commitment Statement setting out the top team’s vision and approach to process safety, and then going out and engaging with people about it.

Workforce involvement

If great leadership is one of the pillars of great process safety, employee involvement is another. Employees see more safety-related issues in a day than a manager may see in a week. Consequently, failing to harness the skills of the workforce is failing to use all your available resources to improve process safety.
Involvement should include:

  • having an easy means to report hazards and issues, with visibility and feedback that they’re properly dealt with;
  • contributing to the design of facilities and the development of procedures to ensure they are easy to operate; and
  • being part of the team that investigates incidents and receives feedback on the findings and recommendations.

National Grid recently completed a process-safety culture survey to find out the views of some 1200 employees. We chose to use the same survey used in the Baker Report2 on the BP US refineries, in part because it gave us some comparisons but also to save reinventing the wheel. The survey asked 65 questions in the areas of: process-safety reporting; safety values/commitment to process safety; supervisory involvement and support; procedures and equipment; and worker professionalism/empowerment.

A survey of this sort will always identify some issues you didn’t know about, which need to be pursued aggressively. Failing to respond to valuable feedback, especially when it may be what you don’t want to hear, can be extremely damaging.

Risk management

Good risk management sits at the core of any effective safety management system. However, understanding and articulating process-safety risks is not straightforward.
Many companies will use a simple matrix of likelihood by severity to assess safety risks, typically using a 5 by 5 matrix, leading to a maximum risk score of 25.

However, this method doesn’t really work for process-safety risks, as the probability of an incident is always low, so your process-safety risks will appear relatively low compared with personal-safety risks.

Process-safety risks are more likely to have some form of quantified risk assessment carried out, using sophisticated techniques to calculate the likelihood and consequences of various events, and the impact on the site and surrounding environment. The outputs might be maps showing areas around the site that will be affected by a catastrophic event, and graphs plotting the probability of numbers of fatalities. Quite quickly the discussion can begin to use terms such as ‘societal risk’, ‘disproportion factors’, and ‘predicted loss of life’.

Understandably, people can feel uncomfortable when dealing with the possibility that incidents at their sites could have devastating consequences. And given the apparent complexity of the analysis, it’s easy not to take this information to your leadership team in the belief that they won’t understand, or that it could cause undue concern.

Practitioners must not fall into this trap. We expect people throughout our companies to understand complex financial matters, so we should have the same confidence in their ability to understand safety issues. After all, they are making decisions and driving changes that impact process safety, whether in terms of investment, resourcing, or organisation. If they don’t understand the process-safety risks, how can their decisions take those risks into account?

Measuring performance

Given the unreliability of measuring process safety by counting incidents and injuries, how do we gauge performance in this area? What is required is a balanced range of leading and lagging indicators that demonstrate whether your key risk-control systems are in place, and whether they’re effective.

In National Grid, we identified the following 12 core risk-control systems that applied to all our operations:

  • Inspection and maintenance;
  • Staff competence;
  • Operating procedures;
  • Instrumentation and alarms;
  • Plant design and modifications;
  • Human factors;
  • Permit to work;
  • Emergency arrangements;
  • Process-safety leadership;
  • Asset records and data quality;
  • Third-party activities; and
  • Audit review.

For each of these risk-control systems, each part of the business has determined its own set of leading and lagging indicators that show whether the system is in place and working.

For example, a major risk to our gas-transmission pipelines is from third parties carrying out construction or excavation work, and striking the pipeline with a mechanical excavator or auger. To control this risk, we have systems to keep landowners and organisations, such as local authorities, informed about the pipelines crossing their area, and our routes are marked with posts. Detailed information on the precautions to take is provided for people carrying out work near our pipelines, and assistance is also given by visiting them on site. We also regularly fly helicopters over the pipeline routes to check for any activity of which we weren’t aware, and survey the route from suitable vantage points.

Therefore, a range of leading indicators could include: the proportion of aerial surveillance and vantage-point surveys undertaken to schedule; the number of marker posts identified as missing; the proportion of landowner liaison letters dispatched on time and response followed up in 12 months; and the proportion of contacts with statutory bodies, local authorities, etc. undertaken to schedule.

Lagging indicators are used to show when part or all of our control system has failed, and may include: the number of sightings from surveys of significant work that we hadn’t been informed about; and the number of instances of third-party interference or damage to pipelines.

For each of these indicators, simple statistical techniques can be used to determine if the measure is within acceptable limits, or shows problems developing. Simple ‘traffic lighting’ of the measures as red, amber, or green, quickly highlights to management the issues requiring their attention. Aggregation of data, however, must ensure that hotspots that require action in particular areas or plants do not fall under the radar.

It is nevertheless important to remember that your chosen measures are always an imperfect compromise of the true picture, and just because everything is ‘green’ doesn’t mean all is well. Nor should you panic if you get some red lights — what matters is the action you take in response to what the information is telling you.


Process safety needs to be on the agenda just as much as personal safety. A review of our own management of the issues involved has led to some key lessons being learnt. These include:

  • Don’t jump into action, as there is no quick fix;
  • Listen and be open to challenge;
  • Worry when it’s all good news;
  • It’s not a failure to admit you need help;
  • Employee engagement is critical;
  • Staff can get immune to major risks;
  • Rigorously track improvement actions; and
  • Reward the “silent champions”.

Above all, management must never shy away from its responsibilities and leave leadership on process safety solely in the hands of the ‘experts’.

In answer to the question: ‘Could an incident happen here?’ your answer should be ‘no’. However, if you’re so confident you’re in control of your process-safety risks, do you risk being complacent? Improving management of process safety should be a task that is never complete.


1 HSE conference (29 April 2008): Leading from the top — avoiding major incidents, see
2 US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (2007): The report of the BP US Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel, downloadable from

Jeremy Bending is director of network strategy, gas distribution at National Grid.

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