Process Safety: Three Critical Topics to Engage Employees

Nov 3rd, 2013 | By | Category: Health and Safety

EHS Journal - Hydrant by Lisa Hoang

Take a stroll through any refinery, gas plant, or maybe an offshore oil platform. Ask operators how they define process safety. The answers might be a mix of “Don’t blow the place up,” and “Keep the product in the pipe.” Those answers indicate an awareness of process safety. However, they aren’t particularly helpful in keeping people and the environment safe.

I recall the police captain on the TV show “Hill Street Blues” telling his shift, “Be careful out there!” It was a nice gesture, but didn’t inform the beat cop how to be safe. Telling employees to “Keep it in the pipe” is no different than the police captain’s gesture. It’s not helpful.

Instead, safety leaders must engage employees in a fundamentally different way. Safety leaders need to pose questions about process hazards and then ensure their teams understand those hazards. Ideally, the outcome is to prevent hazards from becoming process safety incidents.

Leaders need to move the process safety conversation from “Keep it in the pipe” to:

  1. Do you know your hazards?
  2. Do you know your barriers?
  3. Do you know your role in keeping those barriers healthy?


1. Know Your Hazards

Employees at a facility need to understand the hazards they deal with every day.  Leaders, therefore, play a critical role in ensuring employees are aware of those hazards. While most facilities will have a risk register or a safety case that describes hazards, leaders must make sure all personnel understand the hazards they could encounter.

Whether leaders are doing safety walks, Gemba walks, pre-project reviews, or pre-start-up authorizations, they should be ready to engage people in conversation around these questions:

  • What are your process hazards?
  • How do hazards move to incidents?
  • What’s different about today that could affect those hazards?
  • What work is going on that could have an impact on those hazards?
  • What lessons have we learned at our site (or others) about this hazard?


2. Know Your Barriers

Safety critical equipment (SCE) simply prevents hazards. SCE serve as barriers that prevent hazards from becoming incidents. Often times, employees focus on their daily routines and don’t understand their role in process safety. A wise member of the Steelworkers union once said, “We teach our people how to work the machine and not how the machine works.”

If employees knew something was safety critical, would they view that equipment differently? Front-line leaders are bombarded with decisions they must make and priorities they must set every single day. Knowing what is safety critical could mean the difference between a decision that is right, and one that is deadly.

Do your employees understand which activities support process safety?

On a recent visit to an FPSO (Floating Production, Storage & Off-Loading) ship, I observed a worker painting. Did that employee know that painting the process-related pipes is part of maintaining asset integrity? The painter’s job was directly supporting process safety. He was preventing corrosion on piping identified as SCE. How often does an activity get delayed or reprioritized because it is not recognized as part of process safety or identified as safety critical?

To better identify activities that are critical for safety and to confirm that employees can identify the safety critical equipment they are responsible for, leaders need to engage the workforce. By asking questions, leaders not only learn the answers, but reinforce what’s important to the organization. A few questions leaders can ask are listed below:

  • What equipment is safety critical?
  • How does the equipment contain a hazard?
  • What are the procedures to make sure the barrier stays healthy?
  • How could this barrier fail? If it fails, what else is in place to contain the hazard?

Effective process safety leaders engage employees by asking questions.


3. Know Your Role in Keeping Barriers Healthy

Consider the tale of President Kennedy touring the Apollo Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral. Legend has it that when the president asked a janitor about his job, the janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Process safety is similar. Employees aren’t just maintaining pumps, inspecting hoses and couplings, or adjusting valves. They are keeping the facility safe from major hazards. They are keeping barriers healthy. The leader’s role is to create line of site between the hazard, the barrier, and the individual employee’s role in maintaining barriers.

Leaders can engage employees with respect to barrier health by asking questions such as:

  • What do you do to keep the barriers healthy?
  • How is this equipment different than other equipment?
  • What would you do if the equipment wasn’t working properly?
  • What knowledge do you need to perform that task?
  • How do you know if you (or your co-workers) are competent to perform that task?
  • If you have to replace the equipment, do you need to perform management of change (MoC)?
  • What maintenance activities do we perform to make sure the barriers stay healthy?
  • What keeps you awake at night?
  • What else could we do to reduce risk?



Leaders need to engage employees to improve their understanding of process safety. Leaders need to go beyond the superficial safety slogans and really make sure employees clearly understand the hazards, the barriers, and workers’ roles in maintaining barrier health. That’s the only way to keep the product in the pipe and prevent process safety incidents.


About the Author

Laurence Pearlman is a partner with Oliver Wyman in Chicago. He advises energy and natural resource clients on safety culture, safety leadership, and change management. Previously, Laurence worked for Amoco, BP, Exxon, and Pfizer. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois. He was part of the team that assessed the culture of BP Refining after the Texas City incident and identified leadership and cultural interventions to reduce risk. Laurence holds degrees from the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa.

Photograph: Hydrant by Lisa Hoang, Honolulu, Hawaii.

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5 Comments to “Process Safety: Three Critical Topics to Engage Employees”

  1. Sulaimon SHOLAJA says:

    I actually agreed wjth the content of this articles. its a good one that show the important of process safety awareness in the work place.
    I request that my name is subscribe to articles , and other informations on process safety and HSE

  2. Yüksel says:

    As you know, Health Protection Zones which are distance or area between the establishment (factory) and the next residential area, are determined to protect people in the residential area against a potential hazard and emission in terms of public and environmental health. Safety distances are intended to protect the installation as well as personnel and the environment.
    Whar is your comment to health protection zone?
    Best Regards

  3. Paula Parker says:

    It is really true that every person involves in a process or operation knows to identify risks for them to be confident thus enabling them to perform better. As hazards may cause risk may take on different forms, having awareness and enough knowledge about such is necessary.  Furthermore, training in this matter could greatly help for the employees to be equipped.

  4. tom feeney says:

    This is a great article and helps put this vast subject into perspective.

  5. Waseem Khan says:

    Good article,

    Kindly subcribe my address for articles and notes related to HSE.


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