Introduction to Process Safety Competency

Commitment to Process Safety

What Is It?

Developing and maintaining process safety competency encompasses three interrelated actions: 

  1. continuously improving knowledge and competency,
  2. ensuring that appropriate information is available to people who need it, and
  3. consistently applying what has been learned.  

The learning aspect includes efforts to develop, discover, or otherwise enhance knowledge.  It ranges from narrowly defined tasks that develop new information based on a specific request, such as, conducting experiments that provide data needed by hazard identification and risk analysis teams, to wide ranging efforts  to maintain and advance the knowledge base of the entire organization or even a sector of the chemical  industry.  The learning aspect also includes structured means to retain people-based knowledge, including succession planning. Process safety competency is closely related to the knowledge and training elements of the RBPS system. 

While the competency element often generates new information, the knowledge element provides the means to catalog and store information so that it can be retrieved on request.  The competency element focuses primarily on organizational learning, whereas the  training element addresses efforts to develop and maintain the competence of each individual worker.  

The competency element involves increasing the body of knowledge and, when applicable, pushing newly acquired knowledge out to appropriate parts of the organization, sometimes independently of any request.  Most important, this element supports the application of this body of process knowledge to situations that help manage risk and improve plant performance.

Why Is It Important?

Although catastrophic process safety incidents are relatively rare, the losses associated with the incidents can be devastating.  Learning must be proactive, and lessons must not be forgotten.  Business seems to be changing at an ever increasing rate.  Acquisitions, divestitures, reorganizations, and resignations of key individuals make it more difficult than ever to maintain competency simply by relying on the knowledge in people’s heads.  Simultaneously, the growth in information technology enables businesses to efficiently control, expand, and manage a storehouse of information and access this information from anywhere at any time.  However, only competent people can transform information into knowledge.  Knowledge management, not information management, helps organizations understand and manage risk and remain competitive.

Where/When Is It Done?

Developing and maintaining competency is done almost everywhere in an organization.  Organizational competency is enhanced wherever observations and analysis collide to produce discovery, and it benefits from the more mundane tasks of searching literature and attending technical meetings.  In high performing organizations, any time is appropriate for learning; maintaining and improving organizational competency is a continuous process.

Who Does It?

The competency element involves a wide variety of personnel.  In many cases, a single engineer or technical specialist is assigned to spearhead the efforts of a team charged with gathering and maintaining the knowledge relevant to a particular technology or process.  However, the value of this information is limited unless it is put to use.  Hence, the information must somehow be captured and applied throughout the organization, often via collaborative projects and improvement efforts involving corporate gurus, supervisors, process engineers, operators, maintenance personnel, and facility management.

What Is the Anticipated Work Product?

The main product of the competency element is an understanding and interpretation of knowledge that helps the organization make better decisions and increases the likelihood that individuals who are faced with an abnormal situation will take the proper action.  This differs from the knowledge element described in Chapter 8.  The knowledge element is mainly a collection of data and information in written form.  Although the competency element also produces written records, its  main output to the other RBPS elements is understanding.  Information provided by the  knowledge element and understanding provided by the competency element underpin almost every other RBPS element.

The  competency element interfaces with many other RBPS elements.  For example, it directly complements the  training element, which primarily focuses on individual competence.  It also links to the standards element, particularly in the area of sharing knowledge with external organizations and influencing industry-specific standards and recommended practices.

Normally, the most tangible work product produced by the competency element is a technology manual.  Even though much of the information collected involves written documentation, transcribing what experienced employees intuitively know or feel is not always possible or feasible.  Thus, another important work product is
a means to effectively manage personnel transitions. Collecting information is often relatively inexpensive – it includes activities such as attending meetings,
reading papers, supporting collective projects (e.g., the CCPS Design Institute for Physical Property Research), or participating in industry-wide technical committees.  Conversely, improving process understanding can require a long-term research effort.  Regardless, a work product that consists solely of a pile of technical
papers that are routed to managers, supervisors, and technical personnel at operating facilities is likely to provide little benefit.  To maximize return on investment, the information must be evaluated, made relevant to operating units, and stored in a format that will support learning, remembering, and when appropriate, action.

How Is It Done?

Unlike some of the other RBPS elements, no simple answer exists as to “how” competency is “done.”  The single most important factor is a commitment by senior management to support efforts to learn, and to share new information and insights among units at a facility, with sister facilities within the company, and potentially with other companies.  Once the commitment is in place, opportunities to learn and interact with others abound.  Some information will have to be passed along through mentorship and collaboration; both of these activities typically require active management support to ensure success.  A closely related activity is succession planning, which is an intentional activity  that helps ensure that key positions are staffed with individuals who possess specific knowledge and experience. 

Read More

Section 5.2 of Guidelines for Risk Based Process Safety book describes the key principles and essential features of a management system for this element.  Section 5.3 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 5.4 through 5.6 include (1) ideas to improve 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.