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The 6 Axioms of Safety Management

March 10, 2020
A robust safety infrastructure is crucially important to achieve high levels of safety.

For this article, the term “axioms” is intended to imply broad observations regarding safety management. These observations are primarily experience-based and are an accumulation of the wisdom of many safety practitioners and my own experience in the EHSS (environmental, health, safety and security) area.

1. Each company has an optimum rate of change at which it can achieve its highest level of safety.

As is true in any profession, change is ever-present. Changes are necessitated by a variety of issues, including for example, local, state or federal regulations, technological changes, recent incidents at the company, neighboring community relations, and natural disasters. Obviously, if a company’s safety practices are not fast enough to respond to events, the company’s safety issues will worsen and, in the long run, may even lead to its demise.

Thus, at a very slow rate of change, a company’s level of safety is below its optimum. There are a number of items that tend to contribute to a slow rate of change at a company—bureaucracy, lack of team spirit, poor financial health of the company, and lack of safety focus are some examples.

On the other hand, to stay competitive, technology, processes and safety practices must change. For instance, with the widespread move toward digitization in many industries, it is natural to expect that some companies would want to catch up. However, if the company attempts a rate of change that is excessively fast (for the company), it will also lead to a level of safety which is below optimum.

The reasoning is as follows: At a fast rate of change, the focus will be away from safety and on how fast to complete a project. Focus away from safety will tend to increase the number of unsafe events at the company. Tacit disregard for safety at the top management levels, poor safety culture at the worker level, budget and schedule pressures are some of the examples of the factors that contribute to a fast rate of change.

2. Safety infrastructure at a company strongly influences the level of safety achievable by the company.

Simply put, safety infrastructure is the systems, people and procedures in place at a company to support safety. Safety infrastructure includes, for example, systems for ensuring contractor safety, training, emergency response (including response to natural disasters), safe operating and maintenance procedures, updated drawings, equipment records, and change management procedures.

An inherent feature of safety infrastructure is that it is a dynamic or a “living” system—it must be reviewed and updated periodically and should be available electronically. There also should be backup systems in the event electronic systems fail.

A review of most of unsafe incidents, including such major events as Bhopal and Macondo, shows that lack of proper safety infrastructure and its implementation partly contributed to the incident. Obviously, a poorly managed or incomplete safety infrastructure will lead to unsafe events. As we all know, the outcomes could be enormously severe and could destabilize a company. In extreme cases, major unsafe events could spell the demise of the company. The importance of safety infrastructure is difficult to overemphasize.

3. A company’s economic health impacts safety.

This axiom applies to both poor as well as excellent economic performers. Obviously, management and workers at the companies with lackluster economic performance are under heavy stress to cut costs—and to do that quickly. In this tension-filled environment, safety gets short-changed.

Companies with a strong balance sheet would tend to expand or acquire new businesses. Although at the corporate level, things may look under control, the acquisitions entail a meeting of diverse cultures and philosophies. These differences could contribute to impaired safety. If the management at the acquiring company is focused on making quick profits and then sells the company they acquired, it creates added strain on workers. It is possible that these companies will provide minimal resources for safety.

Unfortunately, market volatility has and will continue to have a major impact on safety. Of course, organizations have to be able to respond to changing market conditions quickly to stay economically viable. However, monolithic emphasis on profitability has an adverse impact on safety. Paradoxically, this sole emphasis on profitability hurts profitability.

4. Inherent characteristics of a process and processing steps impact safety.

Different processing systems and chemical slate yield different levels of inherent risk to a company. On the other hand, highly reactive chemicals, highly toxic chemicals and quantities of these chemicals in process and/or storage, pressures and temperatures are examples of inherent characteristics of process that determine the risk of an incident. Ideally, hazardous chemicals and/or processing conditions should be eliminated or minimized. However, this is easier said than done.

Emphasis is on designing “fault-tolerant” systems. In essence, these systems are designed to minimize impact or consequence of an unsafe incident. Multiple safeguards or Independent Protection Layers (IPLs) are provided to minimize the likelihood of occurrence of an unsafe event and minimize its impact. Many companies employ the ISA-84 or IEC 61511 system of risk assessment. Others enhance HAZOPs (Hazard and Operability study) to minimize risk. In either case, safety systems, no matter how well designed and installed, could fail to function if not inspected and maintained periodically and properly.

5. Regulations (too much or too little) can impact the level of safety.

Safety regulations provide criteria for the minimum level of safety that should be provided. A number of regulations, including lockout/tagout, confined space entry, PPE, electrical safety, fall protection and HAZCOM, have collectively contributed to improved safety. If such regulations were not there, one could argue that the level of safety would probably have been lower.

However, as may be expected, too many agencies and confusing jurisdictions and regulations tend to lead to diminished safety, i.e., the Law of Diminishing Returns.

6. Public rapport is an important component for sustained safety.

On the one hand, in today’s litigious environment, it is prudent to minimize liability. On the other hand, if we extend the concept of “safety culture” to the neighboring community, it makes sense to have an amicable relationship with the neighboring community.

The question is: What has public rapport to do with safety? The reasoning is as follows: When public concerns are taken into consideration during the design stage, the safety systems will not only protect the plant site, but also the neighboring community. Additionally, ongoing rapport with neighbors will help a company respond quickly to their concerns.

About the Author

G. C. Shah | senior consultant, process safety, environmental engineering and industrial hygiene

G. C. Shah, CSP, CFSE, PE, is a senior consultant, process safety, environmental engineering and industrial hygiene at Wood Group, a global project management, engineering, procurement and construction operations company serving the upstream oil and gas, refining and chemicals, pipeline, automation and control, and industrial markets.

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