Downstream oil and gas firms devote considerable resources to ensure that workers at their industrial facilities apply Process Safety Management (PSM) practices to protect human life, the environment and property. A solid PSM system demands a consistent, open flow of operational information throughout a plant's workforce, and a breakdown in that collaboration can cause a major accident, according to a recent ABB white paper examining the "silo factor" at process facilities.
"In a nutshell, the silo factor occurs when departments/functions/groups within an organization don't share information or knowledge with others in the same organization," said Conrad Ellison, an ABB process engineering and process safety expert who co-authored the report with ABB Principal Lead Consultant Graeme Ellis.
Poor information sharing and poor communication have been major contributing factors in many major process industry disasters. In their white paper, Ellison and Ellis identified the silo factor as the common thread in their review of 500 recommendations from 16 in-depth process safety risk assessments that ABB has carried out in recent years.
'A Worrying Pattern'
Paul Alton, who heads process safety in ABB's Consulting unit, said that his company's recent white paper on working in silos in the process industries reveals a troubling trend.
"We have identified a worrying pattern across the process industries that without urgent attention could be lowering our defences against major accidents," he noted.
According to ABB, five common areas of weakness exist within Process Safety Management (PSM) that in some way stem from taking a silo approach to PSM. The specific areas include:
- Inadequate testing of safeguards
- Inadequate Process Hazard Analysis (PHA) records
- Inadequate safeguards in place when compared to the risk reduction claimed as part of process safety risk assessments
- Poor understanding of the worst-case major accident hazard scenarios on-site
- Lack of clarity about the basis of safe operation and a lack of alignment between emergency response plans and the PHA.
"Having an agreed and consistent approach to process safety management is critical for safe performance," said Alton.
"This can only be achieved through integrated and collaborative thinking and processes that encourage a constant focus on Major Accident Hazards," he continued. "We want to encourage industry debate that will help to raise awareness of the issue within the high hazard sector with a view to agreeing an industry standard approach to process safety management."
DownstreamToday recently discussed the silo factor with Ellison. Read on for his insights, including his perspective on how a noted model that illustrates process safety barriers can be helpful in breaking down communication barriers.
DownstreamToday: How can the silo factor manifest itself at a refinery or petrochemical plant?
Conrad Ellison: In a Process Safety Management context this behavior can influence the PSM performance of the organization. What I mean by that is that the barriers an organization has to prevent major accident hazards from occurring can become less robust as a result of the silo factor.
An example that we've found in our research is that the maintenance department plays a very important role in ensuring that safety-critical protective systems are appropriately tested and maintained. This focus can potentially be lost, however, as they also maintain many other systems that are not safety critical. The maintenance team see benefit from standardizing test intervals and maintenance methods across all of the systems they are responsible for, but in doing so can lose sight of the safety critical nature and requirements of protective systems.
DownstreamToday: Refineries and petrochemical plants are complex facilities with employees who perform a variety of specialized roles. Do you think this specialization is the key culprit in perpetuating the silo factor and lack of communication, or are there other drivers at play here?
Ellison: I can pick up your points by focusing on two key areas.
Firstly, roles within an organization. I believe that it is key to recognize that all roles within an organization can and should be depicted as some form of Venn Diagram to attempt to show the PSM-related and non-PSM-related parts of the role to try to get across a clear message. Taking the maintenance department example again – to clearly show the maintenance team's PSM and non PSM related activities – in other words to not lose sight of safety critical protective systems.
Secondly, communication within an organization. What information needs to be shared between departments/functions? Has this been defined? Another example would be how process safety risk assessments are communicated across the organization. The risk assessment tends to involve a single team producing some really useful information. However, the organization needs to take the output from that assessment and convert it into something clear and concise which allows everyone within the organization to understand and appreciate their role in preventing major accident hazards from occurring.
DownstreamToday: Are there any other complex industries that offer refiners and petrochemical manufacturers a sort of template for how to break down silos and strengthen process safety management?
Ellison: I believe that the process industries in general look to refiners and petrochemical manufacturers as having mature/robust PSM systems in place.
The offshore industries have been using bowtie models to illustrate process safety barriers for several years (see here and here for more details about these diagrams). These provide an excellent communication tool to allow employees to appreciate their roles in PSM and encourages a line-of-sight approach to major accident hazards so that everyone talks about major accident hazards and is fully aware of the "worst thing that could happen." Recent on-shore application of bowties is encouraging.
DownstreamToday: Would you like to add any comments about ABB's recent white paper?
Ellison: My key message is process safety is characterized by layers of protection to prevent major accidents occurring. Silo behavior can lead to these barriers being impaired and could lead to increase in the likelihood of a major accident occurring.
You also need to have processes in place that help to check the health of barriers such as process safety performance indicators, traditional audit programs and deep-dive audits.