The ruins are still smoldering in West, Texas, as I write this. On April 18, 2013, the West Fertilizer Co. plant exploded killing 14, injuring 200, and destroying 50 homes, an apartment complex, a school and a nursing home. Much more is still unknown than known about the cause of the blast, but one thing is painfully clear: Another process operation has tragically and catastrophically failed.
As the days and weeks go on, answers will emerge about this specific accident, but the biggest question will, I suspect, remain unanswered: Why is process safety so hard?
It's not for want of trying. Every time an accident like this occurs, there are detailed post mortems. The PDF of the Baker report on the 2005 Texas City accident alone runs to 300+ pages. The costs are also well-known. In the 2011 Deepwater Horizon accident, the numbers run to the billions. But still the accidents happen.
One reason is because process safety is complicated. It's about managing risk. It's about safety. But it's also about efficiency. Downtime from unnecessary shutdowns wastes both time and money—lots of it. But it's hard to estimate the cost of an accident that doesn't happen. It's about compliance and regulation. It's about corporate culture and basic human behavior. Oh, yes, and these days it's about security—both physical and cyber.
Getting all the pieces of the safety puzzle to come together efficiently, effectively and without breaking the bank is an ongoing struggle.
Is the Struggle Worth It?
But it's a struggle that can't be avoided. Even putting aside any moral issues, economically it's making less and less sense to not take process safety seriously.
"People are realizing good safety leads to both top and bottom line improvements," says Steve Elliott, product director for Invensys Operations Management's Triconex safety family. Good safety systems generate a +5% improvement in the top line. Bottom line improvements are around cost reductions that can be quantified up to a point. You can reduce production costs by around 3%, capital costs by around 1% and maintenance around 5%."
The real eye-opener is the possible 20% reduction in insurance costs, according to Elliott. "You can have a real conversation with the insurance companies, and use this [potential reduction] to promote safety management," he says. And it is possible to begin to arrive at an estimate of the cost of the accident that doesn't happen, says Elliott. "The machinery industry uses the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) metric. That approach is coming into the safety environment. [We're looking at] reduction in downtime, maintenance. It's the same kind of measurement. It's now possible, up to a point, to evaluate the costs related to accidents that don't happen. We're now seeing a move to use information from layers of protection analyses (LOPAs) to make evaluations of potential costs. That can be used to break through the barriers."
The Great Disconnect
It's not that companies don't think that safety is important. In a recent survey sponsored jointly by Control and ABB, respondents were pretty clear that safety is no trivial thing. A full 78% of respondents said that one of the key drivers that influenced their safety and safety instrumented systems (SIS) practices was safety incidents and injury prevention, and 65% said standards and regulatory compliance were a big motivation.
But it is, alas, still too common for safety to be given a wink and a nod at many operations. In the same survey, 16% of respondents said their plant's safety systems were not compliant with IEC 615I1/ISA 84 safety instrumented systems standards, and another third were unsure. Only 37% of those in non-compliance said they had an established roadmap and timeframe for becoming compliant, and 27% said they had no plans to do so. Another 36% said compliance was "on their to-do list," and we all know what happens to many items on such a list.
Barry Young, an analyst with ARC Advisory Group, observes, "There are still some very old systems out there that haven't been replaced. Why? It's my personal belief that end users kind of wink at you. You have a manager responsible for a unit. The guy wants to move up [in the organization]. He's got a couple of million dollars to spend. If he spends them on improving the unit, he's going to get more props for that than for improving safety. He's going to risk that the unit isn't going to blow up. It's tough to have a five-year plan when you're a quarterly company."