Ian Travers outlines smart approaches to process safety risk management in the tank terminal sector
The nature and scale of risk associated with the large-scale and concentrated storage of bulk hazardous substances is well understood. Incidents such as Buncefield in the UK in 2005 and the Caribbean Petroleum Refining explosion in 2009 illustrate the catastrophic consequences of a loss of containment.
Storage located along estuaries and coastal sites pose a special risk to protected marine environments. The combined pressure of protecting people and the environment comes with the territory of managing any large-scale terminal facility. Fortunately few operators have ever experienced a catastrophic accident however, the past is not a good predictor of the future when it comes to risk management.
Learning the risks
So what are the big lessons to learn about risks from terminal storage operations over the last 20 to 30 years? We know that implementing a process safety management system effectively manages catastrophic risks. But major catastrophic accidents keep occurring, so what are the factors that operators should pay attention to?
It is not the technology
The second big lesson is that it’s not the technology that lets us down. There have been major improvements in plant design, integrity and asset management in the last 20-30 years. This includes secondary and tertiary containment to keep large spills confined and recoverable in the event of a major tank failure. Safety instrumented systems that are the guardian of safe operations and level control have seen a significant reduction in the risk of tank overfilling – which was at the core of what went wrong at Buncefield.
The complexity and the sheer scope of safety issues can be the enemy of effective risk management in modern process plant and installations. But not all safety systems contribute equally to risk reduction or safety performance and people are now the critical and vulnerable factor. Few terminal operating companies have the luxury of high manning levels, spare human resources and a workforce with many years of experience. Lean operations and contracting out support and maintenance is common place. Operational and maintenance errors based on inexperience or lack of a fundamental understanding of process safety risks is likely to form the trigger for the next big incident.
Sitting alongside this front line weakness in process safety management is a lack of thorough understanding of the principles of process safety management by senior managers and executives. Organisations soon become over reliant on a few safety specialists who hold the key knowledge and information about process safety and how all the safety system components fit together to deliver safe outcomes. Without the appropriate degree of competence in process safety management, effective decision making at senior management level can be become blinded to the potential impacts that critical decisions and actions can have on process safety integrity.
A good example of this was at BP’s Texas City Refinery, where a blanket maintenance cost reduction exercise led to neglect of critical process safety control measures. Similar circumstance occurred at Buncefield however, it was organisational complexity and lack of clear responsibility that led to such neglect.
A recurring theme appears to be an inability within organisations to identify key ongoing operational and maintenance tasks that contribute the greatest to sustainable safe operation and to then to rigorously focus on ensuring that these are undertaken the way they were intended.
The converse is also true – neglect the most vulnerable parts of risk management and a disaster is bound to occur at some point. The old adage that you are only as good as the weakest point holds true for catastrophic risk management.
The weakest part is now the human input to risk management, not the hardware or safety instrumented systems. Many incidents I have investigated have been as a result of a single critical mistake made by an individual responsible for a key part of safe operations or maintenance or from a critical error made during risk assessment or say authorisation of a plant change or issuing a permit to work.
However, when senior managers discover such failings there is disbelief because a safety management system existed on paper and had been implemented at some time in the past within the business.
Unfortunately, such failures arise because there is little focus on whether systems can continue to deliver the intended outcome long after they are first designed and put in place.
Delivering the right safety and environmental protection outcomes involves people at all levels within an organisation from senior executives, managers and operational staff. Safety cannot just be the responsibility of a small dedicated professional team, everyone involved has to get on the same page and get involved in the same way because the hazards are always on the same page and always present, no matter how inconvenient it is.
Confusion, misunderstanding and misaligned priorities can all lead to catastrophic consequences. The hazards and the safety risks will all still be present whether or not those involved in controlling this risks all have the same focus.
There are now good techniques and methodologies using bow tie analysis to undertake risk profiling being developed. They also identify those aspects of process safety risk management which contribute the greatest to the prevention of a major incident but which are those most vulnerable to failure.
These techniques have been applied successfully within the bulk storage terminal sector with surprising results. Such clarity of focus has helped business to focus on what really matters and to scale back activities which are less liable to fail. This saves costs and also provides an ability to respond quickly to early signs of failure within complex systems.
Travers will be speaking on the first day of the StocExpo Europe conference on March 28 about process safety management.Visit the website www.stocexpo.com for more information about the show