Prevent process safety incidents from occurring

Process safety incidents can lead to tragic consequences for workers and for innocent bystanders and it is paramount companies work on improving protocols and best practices.

By Gregory Hale, ISSSource November 20, 2017

Process safety events are bad enough within the confines of any facility, but it can lead to tragic incidents outside the fence.

“These incidents are why we will never be complacent,” said Lynne Lachenmyer, vice president safety, security, health, environment and corporate board at ExxonMobil during her keynote address at the Mary Kay O’Connor Safety Center 2017 International Symposium in College Station, Tex. “An instant is all it takes to leave an indelible impression on an entire industry.”

A safety incident can be misleading as they are often a series of small incidents or shortcuts that lead to a bigger event.

“Incidents are always preventable,” Lachenmyer said. “Major process incidents don’t just happen, they are a breakdown in the process safety systems. We must verify there has been no backsliding and we don’t hear ‘it can’t happen here.’ ”

Lachenmyer recalled an explosion and fire in 1987 at a refinery in Torrence, Calif., which shut down the refinery. There were minor injuries in the blast. She said the incident shaped her life. 

“I was in a vanpool going home when it happened. When I came in the next day, the silence was deafening when you are used to the loud noises from the machines,” she said.

She saw the debris field from the explosion and was struck by the shrapnel area’s potential impact. It is understood the oil and gas industry is relatively dangerous and the risk of fire and explosion or release of toxic chemicals is always present. She said smart process safety and reviewing policies and procedures is the only way to go.

The industry is wrought with infamous incidents like Texas City, Pasadena, Deepwater Horizon, and the Valdez oil spill. How a company overcomes those incidents and learns from them is paramount.

“As a result of Valdez, we overhauled our safety to understand we are in the risk management position,” Lachenmyer said. “We created a framework to be one of one mind when it comes to safety and risk management. We speak the same language.”

Thanks to the framework, she said process safety performance is improving, but they are not where they want to be yet.

“It is imperative for us to raise the bar,” she said. “It is a continuous journey.”

They improved their process safety, Lachenmyer said, but they went back to revisit the issue and see what they could do better. To do that, they had to look at the issue broadly, be humble, and listen.

“We learned things we did well, but things we can do better,” she said. “We are sharpening our focus on process safety. Equipping our people to execute process safety practices. We have seen an improvement in all segments.”

Lachenmyer said they are providing a roadmap on how to accomplish process safety improvements to show it is a continuous process. “We are increasing process safety expectations. Everybody’s job involves risk management. Everyone needs to understand hazards and assess the risks and how to mitigate the risks.”

That means workers need to understand whatever goes wrong, they need to recognize how he or she can prevent it and if it does go wrong, how he or she can fix it.

“We are all human and we know humans make mistakes,” she said. “Our goal is to enable operators to get safety critical tasks done correctly every time. Process safety systems should be executed flawlessly.”

About 70% of incidents of consequences are related to humans, she said. That is why they’ve made a concerted effort in making sure processes are understood and executed.

“You get what you inspect, not what you expect,” Lachenmyer said. “We know what gets measured gets managed.”

Gregory Hale is the editor and founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source (, a news and information Website covering safety and security issues in the manufacturing automation sector. This content originally appeared on ISSSource is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media,

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