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Introduction to Process Knowledge Management


Developing, documenting, and maintaining process knowledge is one of two elements in the RBPS pillar of understanding hazards and risk. Section 8.2 describes the key principles and essential features of a
management system for this element. Section 8.3 lists work activities that support these essential features, and presents a range of approaches that might be appropriate for each work activity, depending on perceived risk, resources, and organizational culture. Sections 8.4 through 8.6 include (1) ideas for improving the effectiveness of management systems and specific programs that support this element, (2) metrics that could be used to monitor this element, and (3) issues that may be appropriate for management review.

What Is It?

The knowledge element primarily focuses on information that can easily be recorded in documents, such as (1) written technical documents and specifications, (2) engineering drawings and calculations,
(3) specifications for design, fabrication, and installation of process equipment, and (4) other written documents such as material safety data sheets (MSDSs). Throughout this chapter, the term process knowledge will be used to refer to this collection of information. The knowledge element involves work activities associated with compiling, cataloging, and making available a specific set of data that is normally recorded in paper or electronic format. However, knowledge implies understanding, not simply compiling data. In that respect, the competency element (see Chapter 5) complements the knowledge element in that it helps ensure that users can properly interpret and understand the information that is collected as part of this element. The knowledge and competency elements are closely linked in other ways as well. The competency element involves work activities that (1) promote personal and organizational learning and (2) help ensure that the organization retains critical information in its collective memory. Technology manuals and other written documents produced as part of the competency element are often stored and distributed via the knowledge element’s management system. A key distinguishing feature of information developed as part of the knowledge element is that it generally has a high degree of structure, which applies to all processes. In addition, the primary objective of the knowledge element is to maintain accurate, complete, and understandable information that can be accessed on demand. Conversely, a technology manual compiled as part of the competency element often includes historical information; it is also less structured and is much more likely to include sections that are “under development” based on ongoing projects within the company’s research and technology functions. Information collected and maintained by the knowledge element tends to answer questions starting with “What,” for example, “What is the area and overall heat transfer coefficient for this heat exchanger?” Whereas the competency element helps process knowledge users answer questions starting with “Why”, such as, “Why is this heat exchanger ten times larger than it needs to be for routine service?” The knowledge element includes work activities to ensure that the information is (1) kept current and accurate, (2) stored in a manner that facilitates retrieval, and (3) accessible to employees who need it to perform their process safety-related duties.

Why Is It Important?

Risk understanding depends on accurate process knowledge. Thus, this element underpins the entire concept of risk-based process safety management; the RBPS methodology cannot be efficiently applied without an understanding of risk. Process knowledge also supports other RBPS elements. For example, the procedures, training, asset integrity, management of change, and incidents elements all draw on information that is collected and maintained as part of the knowledge element. 

Where/When Is It Done?

Development and documentation of process knowledge starts early and continues throughout the life cycle of the process. For example, early laboratory efforts to develop new materials, characterize these materials, and evaluate the synthesis route (including the potential for runaway reaction or other inherent hazards) normally become part of the process knowledge. Efforts continue through the design, hazard review, construction, commissioning, and operational phases of the life cycle. Many facilities place special emphasis on reviewing process knowledge for accuracy and thoroughness immediately prior to conducting a risk analysis or management of change review. Knowledge of special hazards often becomes critical to safe mothballing, decommissioning, and demolition of process units. Knowledge is typically developed and maintained at a number of physical locations, but, in general, process knowledge should always be available to key personnel at operating facilities.

Who Does It?

Knowledge grows and evolves throughout the life cycle of the process and thus is the responsibility of a number of organizations. Early in the life cycle of a process, knowledge is normally developed by the central research, development, and engineering groups. Detailed design work is often performed by external engineering firms, and much of the information developed during the detailed engineering and construction phases of the life cycle is developed externally. Around the time of plant commissioning and startup, responsibility for maintaining and expanding knowledge typically shifts to the facility at which the unit is located. In other cases, the knowledge is maintained by a group external to the facility, such as central engineering or the engineering contractor that designed the unit. Chemical hazard information is developed mainly by suppliers or corporate research and provided to the facility. For example, much of the hazard information on raw materials is documented in MSDSs and product- or chemical-specific guidelines published by the company that manufactures the material. 

What Is the Anticipated Work Product?

The main product of the knowledge element is (1) accurate, complete, and up-to-date information to support process safety activities at each life cycle phase and (2) a system to store and retrieve this information. Knowledge normally includes: 

  • Written technical documents and specifications.
  • Process design basis.
  • Equipment design basis.
  • Engineering drawings and calculations.
  • Specifications for design, fabrication, and installation of process equipment.
  • Other documents such as chemical hazards information, MSDSs, etc.

Another work product is a listing of relevant engineering guidelines or standards that are described in detail in Chapter 4. Documenting the engineering guidelines or standards helps ensure process safety by
(1) establishing agreed-to minimum specifications/requirements and (2) identifying what equipment may be affected by changes in guidelines or standards. These work products define technical content and work activities for several other RBPS elements. For example, the maximum allowable working pressures and temperatures for vessels and other equipment often directly define safe operating limits in the procedures element. The list of safety systems that is maintained by the knowledge element likewise directly corresponds to the description of safety systems in the operating procedures and is used as input for efforts to identify equipment that should be included in the scope of the asset integrity program. The strong link between the knowledge and competency elements is more fully described in Section 5.1.5. Finally, the work products of this element are a vital input to the risk element; understanding risk is central to the entire concept of risk-based process safety management.

How Is It Done?

Process knowledge is typically collected and cataloged as (1) hard copy documents stored in file cabinets or libraries and (2) electronic files or databases maintained on computer networks. Although the more technically advanced database approach should simplify searches and improve accessibility, neither approach will work well unless the facility staff (1) is trained on how to access the information, (2) understands the content, and (3) makes a commitment to keep the information current and accurate.