Shell's 'uneasy' approach to process safety
With 15 years’ experience in managing the operation of top-tier COMAH sites, Dave Topliffe, manufacturing manager, Shell Chemicals UK Ltd, has learned to develop “a healthy, chronic sense of unease” when it comes to sustaining the controls required to prevent major accidents.
Topliffe instills this same sense of unease into process operators and frontline leaders at Shell Chemicals in order “to improve their own understanding of their role and their contribution to preventing major accidents.
Plant operators, along with maintenance teams, are the first line of defence and often required to act alone for much of the working day, Topliffe said at the recent Process Safety Management conference in London. It is important, he said, to strengthen their understanding of process safety and improve management’s ability to support them in controlling processes.
A key aspect of this approach involves ‘barrier thinking’, and “bringing that alive for frontline staff so that they understand how the day-to-day, routine and, often, mundane tasks they do, the procedures they follow relate to preventing major accidents and hazards.
“If they understand that, then these tasks take on new meaning, which becomes an antidote to complacency, shortcuts, non-compliance and reactive behaviour.”
This approach also reinforces teamwork, where everyone from the top boss down has a part to play in process safety.
At Shell Chemicals, this approach is guided by a strapline: ‘Ensure safe production’, said Topliffe. This can be a powerful concept as long as “the leadership throughout the organisation follow through consistently with what that ‘says on the tin’.”
This, he added, penetrates right down to the bread-and-butter routine processes of continuous operations. For example, instead of being a thumbs-up wave in the carpark, shift reporting and handovers become a defined, structured briefings that enable the on-coming shift to acclimatise itself to any changes since it was last here.
They must, he said, be briefed about any implemented management changes or plant changes, what maintenance or special activities are applying and any other instructions or targets.
Another aspect is proactive monitoring to check for deviations in a process and addressing them before they go too far. Operators, added Topliffe, should know how to stablise situations and, if that’s not enough, be confident that they have his support to slow down or shutdown.
“Give positive recognition when plant operators take defensive action to slow down or shutdown to stabilise upsets,” he said. “That strengthens credibility and energises and reinforces the behaviour required.”
Warned against turning a blind eye to teams showing the wrong behaviour, Topliffe said: “Maybe they had a successful outcome and the plant kept running, but that undermines credibility and condones behaviour where next time maybe their luck will run out.”
Shell also operates a ‘no-fly zone” for frontline production and support staff. This means there are no meetings, visits or other distractions, which are not focused on that’s day’s operating and maintenance plan for the first three hours of the working day.
“This is lean, it’s effective and extremely supported by staff. We are saying ‘we are giving you the space to do this to the best of your ability because it is the most important thing that we have to do,” explained the Shell manufacturing manager.
Summing up, Topliffe said Shell’s approach to process safety management was “not rocket science” or even novel. “But what is innovative and powerful is that each step is done consistently to a high and defined standard. If leaders demonstrate its importance, get involved and support it, and allocate resource to respond to the feedback, this virtuous circle of improvement can get real momentum.“
The make-or-break aspect is how to respond to the challenges that the PSM process throws up, he concluded: “Don’t underestimate the work required to change peoples behaviour … or the challenge to your own integrity to mean what you say when you say that your first priority is to ensure safe production.”