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How to Improve Process Safety Culture

Oh no….not another article on “safety culture improvement” I hear you say, perhaps scream!

I did another article titled “how to really improve your safety culture“, so what’s so different about this one?


It took many incidents and several fatalities (loss of life) to get that awareness (and rightly so) regarding the importance of a strong “Process Safety Culture”.

I have “less doubt” now that there is greater focus on process safety culture when it comes to Process Safety Management (PSM).

 It’s not just a case of meeting regulations but also “good business sense”.

Process safety culture improvement requires, to a very large extent, integrating process safety leadership into existing programs. There are three generic steps that organisations can carry follow to advance this effort.

3 Steps for advancing process safety culture improvements:

  1. Develop metrics to include more Leading indicators that are designed to prevent process safety incidents;
  2. Nurture and encourage communications regarding process safety.
  3. Establish and implement “incentive” schemes, however, not necessarily monetary based (recognition and reward schemes).

What’s in the “management system” box of tricks?

I am sure we all know that “management systems” include personal safety, environmental management, and industrial hygiene as the core elements.  The majority of the elements within a Process Safety Management (PSM) framework are already part of a typical management system (EMS, HSMS etc).

However, metrics associated with process safety can be difficult to identify, extract and articulate to Leadership for greater engagement and support.

Let’s talk about those “metrics”

The development and measurement of process safety indicators is often not a priority for organisations.

The tendency has been to focus in “lagging indicators” (i.e., Days Away from Work Rate, Total Recordable Incident Rate, Spill Rate etc). Injuries and spills are relatively easy to explain and for Leaders to understand.

Of course, lagging indicators are an important “sense check” in any organisation, but there is a very strong need to include metrics that bring more focus on leading indicators which are designed to reduce/prevent process safety incidents.  Some examples of leading metrics that can be developed, implemented, and tracked include (but not limited to) the following:

  • Safety Critical Equipment (SCE);
  • Tracking Management of Change (MOC);
  • Tracking effective closeout of Process Hazard Analysis (PHA) and PSM audit actions;
  • Assessing organisational capability around process safety and tracking identified gap closure plans;
  • Tracking the number of Pressure Relief Valve (PRV) activation; and
  • Tracking anomalies from complete permit-to-work reviews.

We need to communicate

Once an organisation has developed a set of leading process metrics, these metrics should be made visible to all staff and included in communications on business performance. This is a positive message sent to the workforce.

My experience has shown that it will take time, but inclusion is better than exclusion (yes, stating the obvious here I guess but so often overlooked).

Leadership must also actively demonstrate their commitment via site visits on process safety (walk the talk). This can include talking about leading process safety metrics and undertaking the following activities when doing the site walkabout:

  • Ask members of staff if they know about the facility’s major accident scenarios or any concerns they may have;
  • Determine if staff are involved in reviewing and updating operating procedures, especially with regard to Safe Operating Limits;
  • Probe into and start a discussion about the last emergency drill and actions taken…what were the lessons learnt;
  • Ask the control room staff about the number of alarms they deal with on a typical shift and determine if “potential risk” pose any added burden or demand on staff response time; and
  • Most importantly, engage staff with open and sincere discussions on process safety.

Don’t forget recognition and reward…it’s very important.

There is an expression….”Progress can only be made is progress is measured”. How true…

If we track with metrics, we can convey the appropriate positive messages to our workforce.  No need to dispense with traditional (and existing) Lagging metrics, but let us generate a positive working environment with new process safety “leading” metrics. This will give the right message and should be maintained on a regular basis.

  • It is important that as process safety is embedded and becomes part of the organisation’s DNA, recognition and reward is established.
  • It is also important to note that rewards are not necessarily monetary, because they are generally “false” drivers and become an expectation rather than a duty. I have had first hand experience where monetary rewards were introduced only to be disposed at a later stage.

The Challenge:

A twist on an old theme now (ref: how to really improve your safety culture).

The question to ask within your organisation is:

Are we looking at “Culture” with a capital “C” or small “c”.  

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