Production versus safety: an extreme case?

Do your workers have the message that 'production is king'?

An explosion at a large refinery in Venezuela in August 2012 killed over 40 people and injured 80, causing massive damage to off-site buildings. The cause has not been officially declared, but anecdotally is thought to involve a leaking LPG pump that was left running, with the size of leak increasing and a change in wind direction/speed eventually leading to a large vapour cloud that ignited and caused a ‘Buncefield’ like explosion. Residents were reported to have said that a “strong smell of gas and fog-like haze hung in air for days before blast”. This charge was denied by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who said “that is practically impossible in an installation of this kind, the largest refinery in the world. It is completely automatised and it has thousands of responsible workers here day and night, civilians and military. There is no way that there could have been a gas leak during three or four days and that no one did anything”.

All this speculation leads to the inevitable question, why would staff continue to operate a plant that is clearly in an unsafe state rather than shut-down to carry out essential repairs? It reminds me of the Piper Alpha accident nearly 25 years ago, where 168 workers lost their lives on a North Sea platform following a gas leak, explosion and oil fire. The situation would have been brought under control if not for neighbouring platforms Claymore and Tartan, who continued to pump oil and fuel the fire, despite hearing the ‘mayday’ call from Piper and seeing the fire on the horizon. It was concluded that operating managers need to be given the authority to make the difficult decision to close down an operation, without the fear of subsequent blame from senior management.

The current thinking in Process Safety circles is very focused on the key role of senior managers in fostering a positive safety culture throughout the organisation. My observation is the need for management right up to board level to be entirely consistent in order to reinforce the Process Safety message. It’s one thing to make pronouncements about safety being the number one priority, but many managers fail to back this up in everything they say and do. Workers quickly get the message that ‘Production is King’, if they are consistently praised for meeting production targets, or reprimanded for missing them, whilst a blind eye is turned to poor safety practices or minor losses and incidents that could have been much worse.


Image credit: Lvivian via wikipedia

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About the author

Graeme Ellis

I'm the global practice leader for the ABB Consulting Process Safety team. I've spent 33 years in the process industries, working in process design (MW Kellogg), process/project engineering (Celanese/Hercules/Anchor), operations (ICI Acrylics) and consultancy (ICI Eutech/ABB Consulting). I have experience in all sectors of the high hazard process industry and I specialise in risk assessment techniques for new plant design and existing operations. In recent years I've become increasingly involved in all aspects of Process Safety Management and Leadership, tutoring on courses organised through the National Skills Academy in the UK. Process Safety accidents continue at an alarming rate across the globe, notably the high profile explosions at Texas City and Buncefield in 2005, then more recently in Gulf of Mexico and only last year at a refinery in Venezuela. These serious events are thankfully rare, but cause terrible loss of life and threaten the very existence of companies. The community of Process Safety practitioners need to share experiences of incidents, not just from their sector but relevant learning from all accidents with serious consequences. I aim to share relevant learning on a range of process safety topics, following the proverb "A wise man learns by the mistakes of others, a fool by his own".
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