Editorial - Is Process Safety Performance Improving?
A newspaper headline from a month ago? - No, it's from the November 7, 1989 edition of the Wall Street Journal (yes - over 10 years - not even available on the internet).
When we heard of the incident at Phillips Chemical Company in Houston, the 1989 disaster there immediately came to mind. That tragedy of 10 years ago gave OSHA the impetus and support to get a PSM regulation on the books more than 5 years ahead of the EPA's RMP regulations.
In researching the story on the Phillips K-resin incident from a few months ago, the website for a Houston TV station listed 12 incidents in the Houston area in the past few years. Phrases such as "Two workers died," "48-year-old worker was burned critically in a fire," and " Eight people died in a factory explosion" leap off the pages. Almost every article published seems to have a sidebar listing other explosions and fires that just drives home the apparent frequency of industrial accidents.
Recently the study by the Wharton Center listed that 1,145 of facilities reporting RMP data (7.9%) indicated 1,913 major chemical release accidents over the required 5-year period. A total of 1,897 injuries and 33 deaths to workers and employees resulted from these incidents.
But this spate of industrial accidents was supposed to stop after the processing industry implemented the concepts of PSM, one of the first performance based standards. We've also had the lock-out / tag out standard passed in the past 10 years that was at the other end of the regulation extreme with prescriptive (50 pound pull tag attachment) regulations to control hazardous energy.
So why do industrial processing incidents continue to occur with what seems to be alarming frequency?
Here are some potential reasons we hear as we travel around the country and read media reports. Which ones have validity and which are folk-legends? We'll let your decide after reading them.
OSHA and EPA enforcement is not tough enough. The fines should to be higher to really provide any safety incentive. Will 'jail time' be the ultimate management incentive?
Business pressures take precedence - it's more competitive now. Consolidation, downsizing and efficiency seem to take precedence over any 'safety systems' like Management of Change.
Industry implementation of PSM focuses efforts in the wrong area. We spend a lot of money on HAZOP studies and fix up lower risk items, just because we find them. We don't identify and implement 'inherently safer technology.'
Lessons learned from near misses and smaller incidents are not being developed nor taken seriously enough to prompt effective corrective action. The root causes are never really found - just the person to blame.
Industry is not sharing enough. Why should there be more than one case of carbon canisters lighting off hydrocarbon tanks? The lawyers are running our sharing activities - not the safety professionals and line managers.
The systems in place for PSM are just window dressing. Metrics, accountability and continuous improvement are just charts on some training wall.
Management's poor safety leadership and an adversarial relationship between the plant managers and workers damage plant safety culture.
Is what the American Society of Safety Engineers saying true? That "educating management on the value of safety" is the most critical part of their job responsibility? Management doesn't know the value of safe, reliable operations? We need more safety professionals?
And finally, incidents haven't really increased at all, the public is just less tolerant and the press knows that fear "sells papers." All of the above reasons are flawed and things are better.
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