Ensure process safety with operational discipline


While the vast majority of companies now have best practice health and safety procedures in place, the difficulty comes with ensuring they are implemented. Mike Cawthra (F I Mech E), Technical Manager Operations at Air Products Europe, explains how an approach based on operational discipline can help ensure they are.

In some instances, businesses are failing to communicate, embed or execute the relevant procedural requirements in practice or even sometimes those requirements may be just being ignored. So, while most companies have comprehensive standards and procedures around every aspect of their operations, incidents most frequently arise when people don’t know about them, don’t understand them or don’t follow them. Either way, my response is a simple one – you need to say what it is you are going to do and how you will do it – and then execute exactly that, flawlessly, every single time.

As a result, I firmly believe that operational discipline – the consistent use and execution of fundamental knowledge and skills in plant operations, across all job roles and operating regions – should be viewed very much as a core behaviour that needs to be continually instilled, emphasised and updated.

With research suggesting that human error accounts for a staggering 91% of incidents within our sectors, we can see that having a culture built around error-free operations is key. It is only possible however if all parties have the necessary knowledge and skills to fully understand the technical aspects of the equipment with which they work and the hazards that are present – and thus the consequence of something going wrong. In short, it’s about ensuring that plant operators follow processes and procedures not because they are told to, but because they understand them and so want to.

How can this be achieved? The normalisation of deviance is a good example. When producing a complex high integrity safety instrumented system, the design team will have run a lengthy analysis to protect against a hazard. But if the plant operator has not been involved in that design process and if they are not familiar with the potential risks, then they are far more likely to tolerate the protection system either being in alarm or an inoperable state.

The focus should, therefore, be on designing processes that the operators themselves can own. The operational discipline policy should guide operators’ actions from the moment they enter the control room, empowering them to work together with peers to identify gaps and high priority areas. Creating a culture is not an overnight process, and self-set progression and teamwork is undoubtedly more effective than imposing specific activities without a thorough exploration of the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.

The flexibility that such an approach affords is key. Large corporations can fall into the trap of rolling out the same corporate initiatives to every location. This wrongly assumes that all sites are the same and share the same gaps in knowledge, compliance and associated needs. This is not the case, and any operational discipline plan should have the necessary flex to respond to and account for site-specific challenges and differences. Let the local team identify their gaps and prioritise where they would like to focus their efforts.

Of course, plant safety incidents are at a historic low, but this can leave businesses struggling to understand what more they can do to improve. Making operational discipline part of the culture sounds like a grand vision but can have very real impacts on the ground. The ultimate indicator of success is a continued improvement in process safety and loss of containment incidents. It should also bring along with it a reduction in workplace incidents and injury rates – which can only be a good thing.



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