A Spotlight on Hazards, Risk and Process Safety

Author: Adrian Jones, Chief Design Safety and Environmental Engineer

Managing Major Hazards and Risk

Identifying major hazards and managing their associated risk is a significant challenge for organisations operating in industrial sectors, and this includes Costain. As a designer, constructor and operator of plants and processes in high hazard sectors such as oil and gas, nuclear, chemicals and rail, Costain has a responsibility to ensure that we do not cause major or significant harm to people or the environment.

But what do we mean by major or significant harm? Well you will probably recall some of the following incidents: Texas City, Buncefield, Bohpal, Piper Alpha, Hatfield Rail Crash or maybe more recently the Alton Towers roller coaster crash. These are examples of incidents which resulted in multiple fatalities, major environmental damage and or life changing injuries as a result of explosion, loss of containment, and high energy events.

Such incidents have a profound impact on people and the environment but they also damage the companies involved, for instance BP were fined $21 billion in relation to the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil release that ultimately could have resulted in the company’s demise. Therefore, for organisations like Costain, apart from a legal and moral duty of care for people and the environment, being able to identify and manage major hazards and risks is essential to our continued business success.

Emergence of a Discipline

Process safety engineering emerged as a field in its own right in response to legislation arising from disasters such as the catastrophic explosion at Flixborough in 1974 and the large release of highly toxic chemicals at Seveso (Italy) in 1976. What these incidents highlighted was the lack of understanding and management of high hazard processes. The common factor in such incidents has been found to be a lack of structured management, which should have identified and managed these issues, and prevented the ultimate consequences from occurring.

Process safety management should be understood as being distinct, but complementary to, occupational safety, which deals with the safety, health and welfare of people engaged in work or employment; both disciplines form essential components of the work which Costain delivers. Of course engineers have always sought to manage hazards and risks but having dedicated process safety specialists as part of the team brings an impartial eye to the design that allows the design to be viewed from a specific safety perspective and ensures our designs build in process safety features from the beginning. This means we avoid expensive rework in the later phases of projects, and helps to protect lives, the environment and our reputation.

The primary aim of process safety is to remove a hazard and to design something inherently safe. However, this is not always possible and in such circumstances we must look to design in other measures to control, isolate and mitigate hazard consequences. And we need to test our process safety features in structured ways, both as part of the design process via hazard studies, and also during the operation via functional testing and good maintenance regimes.

In short, we as designers must ensure that we have reduced the residual risk from hazards to broadly acceptable levels i.e. levels that are in line with an individual’s normal risk profile (a concept enshrined in law). Sometimes this is not technically or economically achievable and we can tolerate slightly high risk levels, with adequate justification, which can be considered to meet a requirement of being As Low As is Reasonably Practicable or ALARP.

Costain takes process safety seriously and we have a dedicated process safety and environmental engineering team that supports our project delivery. Additionally we have committed to training key front line design and management employees across Group in the principles of process safety management. Our process safety expertise has been recognised through National Grid’s Process Safety Award which we were recently awarded for our work delivering front-end engineering design services for the upgrades to National Grid’s Peterborough and Huntingdon natural gas compressor stations.

Despite what we have achieved in the past, like football managers, we are only as good as our last game and the process systems we design and install are, if we don’t get it right, potentially only a wrong valve turn or a corroded pipe away from a major incident, so we can never be complacent. 

And to finish with here are Seven ‘Magnificent’ Process Safety Principles to remember:

  1. Hazards and Risks If you never look you will never know. There are an array of methods and techniques available to help identify, and design out or control hazards and risks. Risk is never completely removed but it can be managed. But be aware that the nature of hazards and risks can change over time so continue to look again at regular intervals.
  2. Costs vs Benefits Safety can always be improved and there will always be something that reduces risk but eventually improvements will become incremental while the costs can become extortionate. At such a point it does not become reasonable to make further investment but such a decision must be justified by a robust ALARP argument.
  3. Defence In Depth Always try to employ a range of protection and prevention measures. Relying on one protection feature, even if it is considered very reliable is risky – it can still fail when required to act. Ensure you have multiple layers of protection and that these layers offer diverse technology – making a backup of a computer file on the same hard drive isn’t a good idea.
  4. Monitor and Record We are familiar with occupational safety triangles, and similar aids are also used to monitor Process Safety and Environmental issues. Much like the occupational safety triangle the bigger the base of the process safety triangle the more likely it is that a failure will ultimately defeat the intended protection measures and result in a serious incident. So ensure that process incidents are recorded and monitored e.g. relief valves lifting, alarms and trips, control interventions, leaks, corroded parts, out of calibration instruments – these are all process safety indicators, and the more you observe the more likely it is that you are not managing you operation or plant well, and you should be concerned.
  5. Maintenance Effective maintenance is essential to ensure that equipment and systems remain in the same safe state as when they were first installed. Designers and engineers need to ensure there are no barriers to maintenance being carried out i.e. can equipment be accessed easily, can you safely isolate part of the process without shutting down the whole plant, is the required maintenance frequency reasonable and cost effective?
  6. The Human Element Whatever you may think, people are the ‘weakest link’. People are not good at doing routine and mundane tasks, we get bored, we may be distracted and we can make mistakes therefore wherever possible let automation do that work. Humans are good at dealing with unusual situations but not under stressful conditions – so wherever possible safety systems should not rely upon human intervention; automatic safety systems should be able make a hazardous situation safe without human action.
  7. Culture The ethos of process safety management must be embedded and practised within an organisation to be effective. Management and organisational culture play as big a role as technology as they set the preconditions for success or failure.


Further reading

1-8 Seven Magnificent Disasters

US chemical Safety Board


For more information on understanding and using process and environmental safety management please contact Adrian Jones or Steven Joyce.