“Safety is not an intellectual exercise to keep us in work. It is a matter of life and death. It is the sum of our contributions to safety management that determines whether the people we work with live or die.” Sir Brian Appleton
A little over a year ago, in A Beginner’s Guide to Process Safety, I introduced myself. I was new to the process safety field, only two months into my career change. In the last year, I’ve learned about specific process hazards, process safety, and relevant regulations. I’m still learning every day. One of the most important things I’ve learned is the difference between process safety and occupational safety.
What I once thought of as a single topic—safety—are two distinct disciplines calling for different skills and approaches. The distinctions are probably apparent to those with a lot of experience in either field; those who are unfamiliar with both occupational and process safety, however, may be interested in a comparison of the two approaches to safety and the role each plays in workplace safety.
(There are two other safety disciplines—security and transportation safety—that I won’t even attempt to address.)
What Are the Two Approaches?
Of the two approaches, most are likely more familiar with occupational safety. Occupational safety is a multidisciplinary field, strictly concerned with the safety, health, and welfare of people at work. It’s sometimes referred to as “hard hat safety” due to its concern with topics such as personal protective equipment (PPE), noise exposure, and slips, trips, and falls.
Process safety on the other hand, is not concerned with hard hat safety; instead, it focuses on hazards associated with industrial processes, specifically fires, explosions, and toxic releases. Some even include structural collapse. The engineering and management skills focused on preventing these kind of catastrophic accidents and near misses often exceed those typically required for managing occupational safety.
While the two approaches share many aspects, and both have a common goal of continual improvement in safety and safety culture, occupational safety and process safety differ in significant respects.
Occupational safety is focused on the safety of employees. The Occupational Safety and Health Act declares the right of every employee in the United States to be provided safe and healthful working conditions. So, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets and enforces standards on fall protection, fork truck safety, housekeeping, etc. However, while occupational safety protects employees from unsafe working conditions, its influence typically does not extend beyond the fence-line of the workplace. Its sole focus is on the protection of the employees of an organization.
Process safety, on the other hand, includes the prevention of unintentional releases of hazardous materials and hazardous energy and, therefore, it must consider the consequences of events at the human, environmental and business level. Since the effects of a release can be far-reaching, it also encompasses a broader range of individuals in its human level considerations. Process safety, like occupational safety, protects the employees who work near covered processes. However, it also considers the effects of a release on the community which can range from a complaint from a community member, to ill health effects, to the death of one or more members of the community.
The comparison of incidents between occupational safety and process safety is a matter of small scale versus large scale. Occupational safety, by nature, deals with smaller scale incidents while process safety incidents can occur on a much larger scale. Occupational safety incidents typically only involve a limited number of people and while no less tragic, have ramifications that usually do not extend beyond a company’s employees and the employees’ immediate family.
Process safety incidents occur on a much larger scale – fires, explosions and toxic releases. The most well-known industrial disasters are process safety failures, such as Chernobyl or the BP Texas City disaster. Another instance, The West Fertilizer Company explosion near Waco, Texas in 2013, killed fifteen people and injured an additional 160; almost all of the victims were not employees. It also destroyed or damaged more than 150 buildings. The magnitude of the impact was vast. While they tend to affect more individuals, and be larger in scale, however, process safety incidents tend to happen at a lower frequency than occupational incidents.
Businesses can’t survive without making a profit. It’s natural, then, that the expenses involved weigh heavily on the implementation of safety recommendations, whether they be occupational or process in nature.
Of the two, the expenses associated with implementing occupational safety recommendations tend to be less. Since occupational safety is concerned mainly with the human factor, recommendations are mostly about behavior and expenditures mostly include items like personal protective equipment and its maintenance, cleaning and washing products, occupational risk assessments, medical tests, and training. While the costs are not trivial, especially for smaller organizations, the costs are essentially material and have an upper limit.
Process safety, on the other hand, is expensive. The scale of investment required is much greater than that of occupational safety. The training for process safety is more extensive and highly technical. What’s more, expenses associated with process safety include the purchase of new process equipment, maintenance of existing equipment, and sometimes, the complete re-design of the process. Process safety considerations can lead to a shutting down a process permanently, something that occupational safety considerations never do.
Balance Your Efforts and Your Resources
No matter the form, safety is crucial in every workplace. Process safety, though, is often misunderstood and overlooked by those external to its workings. It’s expensive and it requires a high-level support system as well as complex technical knowledge. It needs clear and concise communication to succeed, whereas occupational safety affects us all and is more easily understood and accepted as necessary. However, due to its far-reaching effects, negligence in process safety can have a much wider impact. We begin learning of the facets of occupational safety at a young age (“Pick up your toys! You’ll trip and fall!”), which means we understand its importance. It’s routinely discussed and is frequently on meeting agendas, from the board to the team meetings. Process safety is deserving of those same considerations. It’s by balancing efforts and resources that we can ensure an effective and well-rounded safety culture.