December 3 marks the 30th anniversary of the worst chemical accident in history — the catastrophic release of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984 that resulted in thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries. Two articles and the Process Safety Beacon in this issue review some of the lessons learned from that tragic incident.
While putting this issue together, I came across the results of a survey conducted recently by Dräger, a manufacturer of industrial gas-detection equipment, that asked frontline workers and safety managers in the oil and gas sector about their perspectives on the state of safety in their industry. In general, the respondents believe the industry as a whole is committed to safety, although they say that opportunities for improvement exist.
It seems not much has changed over the past quarter-century.
In 1988, when I was an editor at a different magazine, my colleagues and I surveyed readers about their views on process safety in the chemical process industries (CPI). More than 800 people responded; nearly all held degrees in chemical or another engineering, science, or math, and virtually all had experience working in a plant. The title of our article reporting the results was “CPI Safety: High Marks, But …,” and a pull-quote on the first page read “The chemical process industries are very safe, say survey-takers. But much remains to be done.”
Even though we cannot make numerical comparisons because the surveys had slightly different focuses (worker safety vs. process safety) and the respondents represented different populations (frontline workers and safety managers in the oil and gas industry vs. chemical engineers throughout the CPI), there are some clear similarities.
One is the widespread agreement that there’s always room for improvement in safety training. There is a particular need to learn from previous incidents and near-misses. Nearly three-quarters of the Dräger survey respondents say that incidents are learning opportunities, yet fewer than half say that this is always done at their site. If this isn’t happening at your facility, consider attending the Global Congress on Process Safety (GCPS), where sharing lessons learned is a big part of the program. The GCPS is held in conjunction with AIChE Spring Meetings; the next one will take place April 26–29, 2015, in Austin, TX.
Another is the fact that both survey populations characterized their companies’ commitment to and attitudes toward safety as good but not great. Asked what prevents a stronger commitment to safety, Dräger’s respondents cite lack of enforcement by leadership (56%), production pressures (49%), peer pressure (44%), and indifference (35%) as the top four factors. In other words, companies’ safety cultures are not as good as they could be.
My co-authors and I started our recommendations with this: “One thing cannot be emphasized enough: Top management must constantly — not occasionally — consider safety to be as important as profits. Management must do more than simply adopt commendable attitudes toward safety; it must also demonstrate its commitment in words and actions — in particular, by spending money on safety wherever necessary.” Although we didn’t use the term, we were talking about the need for a strong safety culture.
Safety culture was important then. It’s important now. And it will continue to be important for as long as chemical processes operate.
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