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Overview

published on

July 2023

Though safety standards today are relatively stringent, they were rudimentary or nonexistent until the last hundred years. Dangerous occupations were performed under perilous conditions, and the workers who did these jobs were frequently harmed or fatally injured while fulfilling their assigned duties. Over time, safety standards have evolved, and even the most high-risk industries have integrated safety protocols that ensure their workplace is safer than ever before. But these measures aren’t perfect.

This article will delve into the evolution of safety in the workplace, the gradual progression of risk and process safety management procedures, and the vital role that business leaders play in accurately evaluating their unique safety requirements to foster a safer, more efficient environment.

A Historical Perspective of Risk Management in Process Safety

Throughout much of history, hazardous workplaces operated without safety standards in place, and it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that the conversation surrounding workplace safety began to change. The late 19th century saw tremendous growth in factory labor as America transitioned from an agrarian society to one centered around manufacturing. But these factory environments were inherently unsafe. Workers encountered toxic chemicals, hazardous dusts, and dangerous machinery daily, all in the absence of safety guidelines to shield them from the risks. As a result, state labor bureaus during this period were flooded with accident reports of the frequent calamities that befell industrial workers. These horrifying incidents were widespread, and it wasn’t until 1877, when Massachusetts enacted the nation’s first factory inspection laws, that conditions began to improve.

View of a petrochemical facility at dusk

This legislation mandated safety provisions like adequate ventilation, guarded belts, secure elevators, and fire exits for factories, setting off a domino effect of similar state factory laws across the U.S. in the years that followed. By 1897, factory inspectors were in place in fourteen states; ten required machine guarding, eight prohibited women and children from cleaning moving machinery, and seven mandated exhaust fans for hazardous dusts and fumes.

But these state-led job safety and health regulations weren’t flawless. As industries expanded, these laws proved inadequate, requiring frequent updates to address emerging threats. Enforcement often suffered due to inadequate funding and political appointments, and inter-state competition hampered widespread legislative efforts.

Then, in 1907, a mining disaster occurred in Monongah, West Virginia, that claimed the lives of more than 350 coal miners. It was, and remains, the worst mining disaster in U.S. history, and as a result, the call for more standardized, widespread regulation became too loud to ignore. The publicity surrounding this tragedy catalyzed the establishment of the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1910, marking the first federal regulatory body related to workplace safety. This significant move helped to highlight other industries known for their lax safety standards and high injury rates, prompting the creation of various programs aimed at improving these conditions. A highly successful “safety first” movement ensued, which culminated in the establishment of the National Safety Council in 1915.

Steps down to an old mine

These early efforts to create safer working conditions were only the initial steps necessary to ensure that risks could be effectively mitigated. The Bureau of Labor Standards’ establishment in 1934, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and subsequent measures brought the U.S. closer to improving conditions, but it wasn’t until 1970, with the enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, that the Federal Government gained the authority to establish and enforce safety and health standards for the majority of the country’s workers. This turning point significantly enhanced safety standards and paved the way for adequate process safety.

Effective Risk Management Strategies, Programs, and Solutions

Regulatory bodies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other groups like the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) have helped make industrial environments that handle hazardous materials safer than they’ve ever been. But no process is perfect, and every potentially hazardous environment holds the possibility for catastrophe, so while compliance is a requirement, it isn’t the only goal. Instead, industries should seek to encourage safety standards that permeate their culture, ensuring their workplaces are safer and the people in them are safer too.

One set of guidelines designed to guide industries along and help them conduct business as safely as possible is the “Process Safety Management Program (PSM).” This program, which was issued by OSHA in 1992, exists to manage the integrity of workplace operating systems and processes that handle hazardous substances, focusing on the prevention and mitigation of, as well as restoration from, unexpected events. The program is designed to minimize loss and help industrial environments do work safely.

PSM consists of 14 elements or “pillars” for managing processes involving highly hazardous chemicals, and, unlike many of OSHA’s standards, which explicitly dictate compliance measures, PSM is a “performance-based” standard. It delineates the essential characteristics of safety programs aimed at controlling highly hazardous chemicals, thereby offering employers the flexibility to adapt their safety programs to the unique conditions of their facility. And it’s here that one of the most critical aspects of process safety is underscored: the effective implementation of risk management procedures often requires an integrated strategy within the organization itself. Whether it involves setting up a risk management framework, cultivating a risk-aware culture, maintaining transparent communication channels, or consistently reviewing and updating risk management policies and procedures, the key elements that foster the safest work environments require organizations to be diligent in adopting them.

Risk Based Process Safety

Though regulatory compliance is necessary, it doesn’t guarantee the robust process safety performance required to prevent major incidents. The level of operational risk at a facility is subject to various elements that must work together cohesively to establish an effective process safety program. Risk Based Process Safety (RBPS) presents a comprehensive structure that helps to lay a foundation for a facility’s process safety management program. The system is organized into four key accident prevention pillars — Commit to Process Safety, Understand Hazards and Risk, Manage Risk, and Learn from Experience — each of which is designed to eliminate shortcomings and inconsistencies contributing to process safety management failures.

At BakerRisk, we have developed a dual-pronged strategy to utilize the pillars presented in the RBPS framework effectively. Our approach first examines the maturity and performance of a facility’s existing process safety management system. We then pair this with a high-level risk assessment using our unique software, the Risk Screening Tool©. Our risk evaluations begin with a pre-screening process to identify the primary sources of risk within your facility, allowing RBPS elements to be introduced with varying degrees of intensity as the process proceeds. This approach is designed to optimize the performance, efficiency, and effectiveness of your process safety management, as well as to manage risk exposure effectively.

By partnering with professionals like our team here at BakerRisk and utilizing effective risk management frameworks, facilities can adopt the processes necessary to prevent disaster.

Conclusion

Safety standards have come a long way in the last hundred years, but they aren’t perfect, nor are they equipped to assess every hazard present in unique industrial environments accurately. So, it falls upon the shoulders of business owners, managers, and industry leaders to foster a culture of safety and equip themselves with the knowledge required to protect themselves, their businesses, and their workforce.

At BakerRisk, we are steadfast in our commitment to using the first-hand industry knowledge we’ve gained through extensive accident investigations, collaborative industry research programs, and cutting-edge testing projects to stand at the forefront of process safety and risk management. From hazard identification and quantification to risk mitigation plans, we are focused on assisting our clients in averting accidents and equipping them with the comprehensive suite of capabilities necessary to tackle the spectrum of risk management challenges.

If you need risk management assistance, then you need BakerRisk. Our expert team can help you develop and improve your process safety management program or audit the program you have in place.

Contact BakerRisk today, and we will work with you to determine the practical solutions for risk reduction and mitigation needed to create a safer, more efficient workplace.