This article was printed in CONTROL's September 2009 edition.
By Walt Boyes, Editor in chief
We know now that despite all the work that many people have done on functional safety and functional security, we are still having accidents, plants are blowing up, and people are being injured and dying. I admit that part of it—but only a tiny part—is the fact that the process manufacturing industries are inherently dangerous.
Whirling robots and whizzing assembly lines in discrete manufacturing can be dangerous too, but the safety record in those industries is far better than is ours in the process industries.
Why is that?
There are a number of reasons, but the overarching one is that in the process industries we have not yet managed to achieve the creation of functional safety cultures—and we have yet to even begin to create functional security cultures in our plants.
What's a functional safety culture? It is a culture that starts at the top. It must start there. There's an old Yiddish proverb that "a fish stinks from the head down." Executive management must decide, as Dow Chemical's Levi Leathers and his counterpart at DuPont did in the 1960s, that a safe plant was a more profitable plant. This can be proven to be true, if you use the right metrics.
The usual reaction, as I have said before, is to lay off the risk on insurance companies, rather than spend the money on training and best practices. That practice is beginning to become frayed as the cost of manpower goes up, and the need to protect the human intellectual property of the workforce increases. It isn't getting easier to write off human lives as insurable assets.
But even though it is becoming harder to resort to "business as usual" or "that's they way we've always don it," it still hasn't penetrated the halls of power, the insurance companies or Wall Street that companies who protect and nurture their personnel are guaranteed to be more profitable over any reasonably long baseline than companies who treat their people as expendable human resources. Maybe we ought to change the name of the department back to "personnel," so that everybody would know that they are the "department of people."
Once the people at the top get it, they make sure it trickles down to the plant management and line management, and they make sure that the culture is changed and that the plant has functional safety.
Functional security will work the same way. Functional safety and security are so similar in organizational structure and in management emphasis that cultures can be created in the process industries that produce safe and secure plants and maintain them as a matter of course.
Will having cultures of functional safety and security in our plants prevent all accidents and all injuries and fatalities? Accidents happen, no matter how hard we try to prevent them, so we probably—in fact surely—will never be able to prevent all of them. But actively and proactively working within a culture of functional safety and security will prevent many of those accidents and mitigate the rest.
Simply trying to prevent lost time incidents and relying on a low incidence of workplace injuries isn't inculcating a culture of functional safety and security either. Workplace safety is allied with, but different from, process safety and security. Not only should people not climb on ladders in unsafe places; they should also not operate processes in unsafe ways.
Interestingly, in the discrete manufacturing industries, the labor unions get the credit for pursuing the safety culture and demanding that managements instill it in all their plants. It may be that the process industries missed something up to now.