Business leadership and process safety: an easy introduction into a technical field

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The history of process safety incidents has often shown shortcomings in process understanding. This has often originated from the very top of business organisations.

Since the Buncefield incident and the BP Texas City refinery explosions, there has been an increased emphasis from the health, safety, and environment (HSE) regulators on the subject of process safety leadership and the implementation of safety management systems across organisations.

Following these catastrophes, the ‘Process Safety Leadership Group‘ emphasised business leadership as one of the pillars of effective process safety management. Read the principles of process safety leadership here.  

In this blog, we will explore the principles of process safety management, dive into why solid process safety management systems are integral for a business and why business leaders should create a top-down organisation-wide process safety culture. We would like to get started on process safety and what it means to business leaders and their organisations.

Integrating new attitudes

As new attitudes towards process safety leadership have appeared, how can leaders inject themselves into the extremely technical, scientifically complex and high risk field that is the processing industry? How can business leaders also further commit themselves to the day-to-day activities of the process safety leadership and operational teams, make positive performance suggestions and understand the variety of health and safety guidance and legislation available?

The answer lies in understanding what processing operations are and what process safety means. Once business leaders understand this, it can then be correlated with the protection and overall performance of an organisation.

Understanding process safety and what this means to business

Process safety is primarily concerned with high risk industrial health and safety disasters.

These are events that result in significant safety risks and hazards from fires, explosions, and toxic releases.

In turn, they can cause major harm by killing or injuring people, causing significant environmental pollution or causing a variety of other potentially hazardous impacts to the business.

What is a process safety management system?

Process safety management uses multiple techniques to ensure organisations meet safety management systems and/or national and international legislative requirements.

A process safety management system or framework can help manage both occupational and process health and safety.

There are multiple examples of good guidance that may aid in the creation of an effective safety management system. They include:

Although the language and method may vary, the key from these health and safety materials centres around the Plan, Do, Check and Act framework. (This framework is suitable for both occupational and process safety)

Understanding risk and its relation to business

If we do not understand what can go wrong, we cannot successfully manage it. A business leader does not start a business without fully researching and understanding the market. A business leader also knows and recognises the variety of potential pitfalls in the market and plans against this. So why should a business leader not invest the same amount of rigorous energy, understanding and planning in their process operations?

This is achieved by investigating incidents and near misses before finding the root cause or causes of things that have gone wrong. After this occurs, there are audits followed by review managing and monitoring performances using appropriate metrics.

Using risk management and risk assessments to control potential harm to business

There are various tools, risk assessment methodologies and safety management system theories that can be employed to gain an understanding of the risks and hazards present in operational processes.

This can include HAZIDHAZOP and LOPA, consequence modelling, physical property testing and chemical reaction hazard testing.

All of these tools and techniques require competent resources which businesses may not have in-house.

Furthermore, these tools and techniques must be used proportionately as they are dependent on what can go wrong.

Managing safety via available safeguards and risk management

Now we understand what can go wrong, the next step is to insure against this through the implementation of effective risk management and safety management systems.

Although businesses should be financially insured against potential industrial disasters, we directly refer to the installation of barriers or safeguards within a process design.

The installation of safeguards is there to prevent, control or mitigate disasters from happening in process operations.

The equipment used in the process design is related to the use of an effective safety management system.

The safety management system must ensure that barriers will be effective and remain effective throughout the life of the process.

These barriers need to be intelligently designed, constructed, installed, operated, assessed, inspected and maintained – this is why any safety management systems must be proportionate, appropriate and implemented accordingly.  

For this equipment to be effective at preventing fires and explosions it must be inspected and maintained via the use of competent persons as specified by the legislation. This is especially true for certified equipment.

Are business barriers and process safety leadership systems effective in managing organisational risk?

Effective process safety strategies are related to a company’s safety culture and its safety management systems. So, how does a business learn and adapt?

It requires a company to be in continuous improvement mode. A business always needs to be actively looking to find potential gaps in management, process systems and strategy.

It is achieved by investigating incidents and near misses before finding the root cause or causes of things that have gone wrong. After this occurs, there are audits followed by review management and the monitoring of performances using proper metrics. All of this information must be documented and fed back into processes and company culture. This will ensure that an organisation is in a mode of continuous improvement.

Key principals: individual and business commitments to process safety

This requires commitment and an understanding of a process operation from the very top of an organisation. Commitment from business leaders down to process safety leadership teams and operators must understand and involve themselves in an effective process safety strategy. The creation of this management culture is a pillar to process safety success.

Shift thinking to safety risk

There needs to be a further shift in thinking. Although an organisation will employ and train process specialists, an integrated approach to process safety in an organisation must be considered.

A CEO, board member or business leader, would not distance themselves from important marketing, financial or business strategy decisions. So why would they distance themselves from process safety, and the major industrial accidents that could severely affect their business?

What is an effective health and safety leader?

Effective health and safety leadership centres upon fully understanding the aims, measures and strategies needed to reach health and safety goals most efficiently and effectively possible. For process safety, this entails a solid understanding from the board room down to the operators of what measures and strategies need to be in place to control major hazard risks.


The risks must be known before decisions are made, and senior leaders must understand the risks before they commit to a solution. Process safety management is difficult to grasp for those who are not directly involved with this highly technical field. But making decisions without understanding the risks would not be tolerated in any other aspect of a business or decision-making process, so why should it occur with process safety?

How Sigma-HSE can help

Sigma-HSE’s consultancy team and its testing houses can help businesses in all aspects of the process safety cycle. It is our experience that allows us to identify the process safety gaps in your business and make necessary improvements to your operations. Working in partnership with you we can develop and integrate bespoke process safety management systems for your business.

Process safety management resources

If you are a business leader or if you do come from a non-scientific background, please keep an eye out for our process safety leadership series and our on-demand events.

In the coming months, we will publish relevant process themes and topics that are not overly technical and have been made to develop a process safety culture across a variety of organisations in multiple industries.

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