Improving process safety culture – what’s required?

Table of Contents

Much of the emphasis on the subject of ‘process safety culture’ originates from the Buncefield and Texas City incidents that occurred in 2005.

Both incidents resulted in significant fires and explosions that had repercussions industry-wide.

In the decades since those events occurred, there has been an increased emphasis on the subject of process safety, safety culture and the role of process safety leadership.

Organisational culture is difficult to analyse and even more difficult to change.

Any strategy to enhance process safety culture must concentrate on developing input changes to oversee best practices and promote safety culture and safety leadership across entire organisations. 

What is process safety culture?

US process safety culture

The Centre for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) defines process safety as a ‘blend of engineering and management skills focused on preventing major catastrophic accidents such as fires, explosions and toxic releases’ – all of which have the potential to cause significant harm to humans, the environment and businesses.

UK process safety culture

Safety culture, as defined by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), is the ‘product of the individual and group values, attitudes, competencies and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation’s health and safety programmes.’

The simple definition

However, a more succinct definition could be “effective process safety culture is how the organisation behaves when no one is watching.”

Process safety leadership: defining behaviours

The key wording in the HSE’s definition focuses on the fact that safety culture is a product of both individual and organisational attitudes and behaviours. So, if an organisation wishes to develop a good process safety culture, then it needs to ensure that the entire organisation and its employees, behave appropriately.

The creation of this culture starts at the very top of a business. The CEO, board members, senior leadership and decision makers, process safety leadership teams and operational members, must commit to good process safety culture. A crucial factor that is often overlooked, is that the individuals of an organisation must be fully aware of the process safety standards set forth by the business.

Process safety management: behavioural inputs

Humans tend to follow requirements if they understand and agree with their necessity. The problem for organisations and process safety leadership teams, however, is that attitudes and behaviours are outputs.

Instead, there should be a focus on inputs to help achieve necessary organisational attitudes and behaviours. The inputs needed are threefold:

· Goals & Aims

· Policies & Procedures

· Coaching & Mentoring

Goals & aims

The first inputs are goals and aims. Organisations must ask themselves if they have clear, achievable goals and aims for measuring process safety performance. These should directly align with the wider business goal of improving process safety and safety culture.

These goals and aims need to be both believable and attainable. If people believe in both the purpose and the ultimate reason behind set goals, then their behaviour will change.

Behavioural training

Consider a health improvement app based on completing a specific number of steps per day. The app states that if a certain number of steps each day, we will eventually be fitter and healthier. Progress is checked each day and a conscious effort will be made to behaviours to achieve the set target.

Small behaviours and habits then change. Rather than settling down after dinner to relax, steps are checked and reminders are sent stating that the step goal is yet to be reached. If the target is not completed, then the dog is taken for a walk or plans are altered to complete the daily goal. Again, if the goal is achievable and is believed in, then this push to complete the steps will occur.

Policies & Procedures

Policies and procedures set the standard requirements for an organisation.

Risk management vs risk assessments

Good risk management policies focus on the 5W’s – What, When, Where, Who and Why.

Procedures, on the other hand, tend to focus on the How. The HAZOP procedure, for example, will instruct us on how to do a HAZOP. 

Alternatively, a risk assessment policy will consider, through the 5W’s, the wider picture. This will include all the available risk assessment tools to be used when they should be used, by whom, and importantly, why.

Again, we as humans function better if we understand the reasons why something is being done.

Having policies and procedures is, in a sense, easy. Having policies and procedures that people understand, use, follow and implement can be a challenge.

Choosing, implementing and understanding procedures and audits

When undertaking process safety management audits, choosing the correct procedure can be a long-drawn-out process. But, once found, employees are often surprised at the steps outlined in a particular procedure. This, therefore, shows that people should spend time getting to know the content of an organisation’s policies and procedures.

Ask one question, ‘when a near miss or incident is investigated, how many times have we found that procedures were not followed?’

Often, it is the result of an incorrect procedure that was not followed, could not have been followed or, more generally, because an interpretation of a particular procedure was needed. Although, other aspects of an organisation may prevent employees from correctly following policies and procedures.

Process safety management systems and product delivery

Organisations pride themselves on being responsive to a client.

The elements of a process safety management system (the policies and procedures) are designed to make sure that an organisation supports a safe working environment while allowing for certain flexibilities.

Examples of this will include hazard identification exercises (e.g. HAZOP, LOPA etc) and the Management of Change. 

However, practitioners across the sector understand that quick answers from these techniques do not happen often.

As an example, a business may have told a client that they can have a new product manufactured within 3 months.

In reality, can all the hurdles that have been created and implemented for this new process?

Can it be developed in line with organisational policies and procedures? Is it achievable within that set period?

Outside of the process operations, are the sales and business development departments aware of any particular issues that may arise?

With a well-structured organisational culture, they will be.

But again, the entire business has to embrace this culture.

An issue that arises with safety management systems, however, is unsuccessfully trying to understand the key fundamentals of what is trying to be achieved, so this must be at the forefront of everybody’s mind.

Integrating realistic timeframes

All too often, a new product can be delivered within the set period, but many of the necessary steps required by the policies and procedures are missed.

As an example, a company undertook a 3-week maintenance shutdown that had taken one year to plan. The plant was planned to restart operations on a Monday. On the preceding Friday afternoon, the plant was instructed that the maintenance had finished early, and the plant could be started up on Saturday. Normally, in this situation, everyone is congratulated, and bonuses are paid out. But, with this particular case, an investigation was instigated over the weekend to find out why the project was completed early – after all, it took one year to plan, and the required shutdown time was 3 weeks.

The investigation found that the maintenance had been completed correctly. When the equipment was needed to complete a specific job, it was discovered that it was already present and waiting to be used. These efficiencies became clear and resulted in the tasks being completed ahead of schedule.

Coaching & Mentoring

The third, and most important input, is coaching and mentoring. At this stage, the awareness and understanding of an organisation’s process safety standards should be set and enforced across the entire business. Although it requires both time and effort to be successful, everyone in the business has to be able to coach and mentor.

People will naturally be better coaches and mentors than others, but the knowledge and attitudes it takes to coach and mentor should be present across the organisation’s management systems.

As prevalent across the sector, coaching and mentoring can be achieved by undertaking “safety observations.” Individuals are tasked with making observations to probe awareness in others. A target or aim can then be a set amount of safety observations undertaken each month.

When undertaking safety observations in practice, we tend to search for somebody doing something incorrectly, and the resulting discussion then becomes a one-way exercise. If we are doing safety observations to improve organisational culture, we should probe the individuals’ awareness and understanding even when correct practices are being done. This generates a two-way conversation that involves listening and thinking. Ultimately, both parties will learn from this exercise. If this approach is used, organisations will quickly generate a robust and structured culture. Everyone should benefit from this structure, and improvements can then be made to create a safer working environment.


Does everyone coming to work on-site every day chant the mantra ‘I must find a problem today! I will not be happy unless a find a problem!’

Is this what your employees do? Is this what your process safety management team do and requires of others? Is this what those at the top of your organisation do? Is this your organisation?

Process safety requires organisations to be in continual improvement mode – always looking for improvements to be made. This is a key behaviour needed for good process safety culture.

From the very top-down, everyone in an organisation should always try to seek out problems, because problems can be solved, and improvements can be made. The problems not seen cannot be improved.

If you are unclear about the effectiveness of your process safety leadership or organisational culture, Sigma-HSE can help implement process safety management systems across a variety of industries and can collaborate with you to implement tailored process safety management solutions for your business.

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