For companies that store, use or produce hazardous chemicals, proper management can be a matter of life and death.

The International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (IOGP) explains that Process Safety Management is a “disciplined framework for managing the integrity of operating systems and processes that handle hazardous substances,” and the goal is to prevent unplanned releases of hazardous materials or energy to prevent structural failure or loss of stability that could lead to a major incident. The IOGP says there were 56 process safety events between 2007 and 2017 that led to 128 deaths.

Take the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, for example. On April 17, 2013, emergency services personnel were responding to a fire at the fertilizer facility when the site exploded with the force of a magnitude-2.1 earthquake, killing 15 people and injuring nearly 200 others, according to a report from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. The blast, which destroyed schools, a nursing home and hundreds of homes, was named one of “the most destructive incidents ever investigated” by the CSB. The agency found the explosion could have been prevented with proper storage of the 40-60 tons of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate. In addition to the loss of life, the explosion led to about $230 million in insurance costs, plus $16 million in federal disaster assistance. Incidentally, an ammonium nitrate explosion was also the cause of the recent deadly incident at the Port of Beirut.

What Is Process Safety Management?

The term Process Safety Management (PSM) became prominent because of an OSHA regulation that requires businesses to properly manage hazardous chemicals, with the goal of creating safe workplaces and preventing “unexpected releases of toxic, reactive, or flammable liquids and gases” that can cause disasters. Process Safety Management systems are usually a blend of technology platforms, specific procedures and management frameworks.

Other versions of the PSM have since appeared as the implications were better understood. In the United States, the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) model includes 20 elements categorized into four pillars.

There are several other models that are used around the world. The Seveso III Directive (2012/18/EU), for example, has been implemented as PSM in the European Union to limit risks related to the storage and handling of hazardous chemicals. In the United Kingdom, the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Regulations 2015 cover PSM. In the Middle East several countries have opted for Safety Management Systems (SMS), which have PSM embedded. Within Australia, process safety is largely controlled through Occupational Health and Safety Acts and regulations pertaining to Dangerous Goods and Major Hazard Facilities. And the AICHE is helping Japan design such a system there, too.

How Do Process and Occupational Safety Differ?

Process Safety Management is often confused with Occupational Safety Management, but the two systems can be distinguished by the scale of failure they seek to prevent, according to Oil Gas Facilities. Process Safety Management aims to prevent large-scale disasters, like explosions. Occupational Safety Management, on the other hand, aims to prevent more individual-level safety incidents, like falls. Occupational Safety hazards are more common, but can often be addressed by smaller scale interventions, while Process Safety hazards generally require higher level solutions. The simple explanation is that process safety relates to what you are doing, and occupational safety relates to how you do it.

To address Process Safety Management, there are several risk studies that come into play, such as Hazard and Operability studies (HAZOPs), Layers of Protection Analysis (LOPA), Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA), Process Hazard Analysis (PHA), and Security and Vulnerability Analysis (SVA).

How to Implement Process Safety Management

Process Safety Management is complex and requires a multidimensional approach that blends technology and management solutions. Every Process Safety Management program should include 14 basic elements, according to OSHA. Here is a brief overview:

  1. Process safety information: Staff should have access to basic information about the hazards of the chemicals and tools they are using on the job.
  2. Process hazard analysis: This helps organizations evaluate their processes and operations to identify potential hazards. Still, organizations can’t manage safety and hazards until they know what hazards are actually in their facilities.
  3. Operating procedures: Work should follow consistent, well-established safety protocol.
  4. Hot work permit: Work with fire or other sources of ignition requires a systematic process for authorization and oversight.
  5. Emergency preparedness and response: Organizations should have a response plan if something goes wrong.
  6. Mechanical integrity: Businesses are required to track and evaluate the evolving safety risks of equipment.
  7. Pre-startup safety review: Businesses are required to thoroughly assess new or modified facilities before hazardous substances are introduced into the workplace.
  8. Training management: Employees should be properly trained on all safety procedures and have access to ongoing refresher training.
  9. Management of change: When processes change, businesses should conduct a systematic review of how the changes will affect risk throughout their facility.
  10. Incident investigation: When incidents and near-misses occur, businesses need a systematic process to record, track, investigate, report and analyze what happened.
  11. Contractor safety management: The safety of contractors and subcontractors should be covered by process safety management systems.
  12. Compliance audits: Organizations should conduct regular internal audits to ensure procedures and processes are compliant.
  13. Employee involvement: Employees should be able to access, acknowledge and sign-off on policy documents.
  14. Trade secrets: Employees must be provided thorough documentation of materials and processes, even those that are trade secrets, to ensure health and safety.

It is worth noting that PSM focuses on events that have perhaps occurred very infrequently in the past. Perhaps, they might never have occurred at all. But, if they do occur, they are often catastrophic. While it can be complex and expensive to understand these low-probability events, the outcomes that result when they do occur are orders of magnitude more severe.

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