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A Reliable Plant – Good for Personal and Process Safety

Ron Moore

Do you believe in safety? There is always a unanimous and resounding "Yes!" when this question is asked, particularly from executives. If you, particularly you executives, believe in safety, then you must believe in reliability and, more importantly, have the appropriate policies, systems, practices and measures to support reliability. You must walk the talk about safety.

Compelling data from operating plants has been provided to demonstrate that "a reliable plant is a safe plant, is a cost-effective plant, is an environmentally friendly plant." The reverse was also demonstrated, that is, an unreliable plant is less safe, more costly and less environmentally friendly. Several of the figures in this article support this position.

When a plant is reliable, there are fewer failures and process upsets, resulting in higher production capability as measured by asset utilization (AU) or overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). This reduces the exposure to the risk of injury. See Figure 1.


Figure 1: Production capability (OEE) versus injury rate

When plant equipment is cared for by doing preventive maintenance (PM) in a disciplined way, and when equipment is routinely monitored to detect problems early and those problems are managed by proper planning of the work, there are fewer injuries. See Figures 2 and 3.


Figure 2: Injuries versus PM/PdM work orders per year

Figure 3: Injury rate versus maintenance schedule compliance

On the contrary, reactive behavior that results in excess corrective work increases injuries. See Figure 4.


Figure 4: Injuries versus reactive and corrective work orders per year

With a highly reliable plant, costs are lower. With higher production capacity (i.e., OEE) and lower costs, there are fewer process disruptions, and systems and equipment don't fail as often. See Figure 5.

slide 5

Figure 5: Production unit costs versus reliability index

And as reliability improves, environmental performance improves. See Figure 6.


Figure 6: Environmental incidents versus asset utilization

The data shown is exemplary of a much larger data set, all of which is consistent. It is compelling!

How do you get reliability? You take a holistic and comprehensive approach to defect elimination in all processes, that is, design, procurement, stores, installation and start-up, operation and maintenance. Working together toward a common purpose results in a plant that is reliable, safe, cost effective and environmentally friendly. Reliable plants maximize benefits - production capability, on time delivery, quality, lower costs, higher gross profits that finance future investments in business and product development and, of course, growth in customer satisfaction, market share, earnings per share and share price. And reliable plants minimize risks of injury, production loss, higher costs and major accidents. Cost management through improved processes and defect and waste elimination are critical to your success.

Incidentally, doing better maintenance will provide some improvement, but if that's all you do, you'll only be performing work that you shouldn't be doing at all more efficiently. You do not get reliability by doing good maintenance, but you must have good maintenance to have reliability. Therefore, it's critical to eliminate the defects in all areas. This approach is illustrated in Figure 7.


Figure 7: The reliability process

Is a Safe Plant Also Reliable, Cost Effective and Environmentally Friendly?

As the figures demonstrate, a reliable plant is a safe plant, but is a safe plant a reliable plant? Notwithstanding all this data, there are operations that have excellent safety performance, as demonstrated by their injury rate, and yet:

  1. In one operation, a chemical plant went out of business. It is often said in total jest that if you don't want to hurt anyone, close the plant. This operation did, but obviously not because of a desire to eliminate injuries. They weren't making money in spite of a reasonable market for their products, in both market demand and price.
  2. Another operation, a large oil refinery, had a major accident that killed several people and injured many others, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. They had recently received an award for safety performance when the accident occurred.
  3. In another operation, an offshore drilling rig, also had recently received an award for safety performance, but soon thereafter had a major accident that killed several people, injured many others and created an environmental disaster resulting in billions of dollars in damages.

So, what happened in these cases? If, as the figures demonstrate, a reliable plant is a safe plant, as well as a cost effective and environmentally friendly plant, is the reverse true? That is, is a safe plant a reliable plant, cost effective and environmentally friendly? The previous examples demonstrate that this is not necessarily true. Why is this?

The Process Safety Pyramid

Andrew Hopkins, in his groundbreaking work, "Failure to Learn: The BP Texas City Refinery Disaster," posits that there is a difference between personal safety and process safety, though they have overlapping areas. He characterizes process safety with a process safety pyramid, shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8: The process safety pyramid

His analysis indicates that you can have excellent personal safety, all the while risking your process safety. For example, frequently exceeding safe operating limits, ignoring or not understanding alarms, missing critical inspections and calibrations, poor operating instructions and training thereto and poor maintenance of critical equipment all lead to a much higher risk of a process safety breach, loss of containment and, ultimately, a major accident. He further suggests that personal safety events are driven by high frequency, low consequence activities, while process safety is driven by low frequency, high consequence activities. In relative terms, this is relatively true. Twisted ankles, burned fingers, or even lost limbs are more common than explosions that kill people, so the former are more frequent and less consequential.

The Reliability Pyramid

A similar figure, the reliability pyramid developed by Winston Ledet from operating plant data, is shown in Figure 9 and focuses on defect elimination. The more defects (i.e., imperfections in any area) you have, the more repairs you do, the more losses you have and the greater the risk of a major incident that results in injuries and higher costs.


Figure 9: The reliability pyramid

The Original Safety Pyramid

The original safety pyramid, first posited by Herbert W. Heinrich in 1931, is shown in Figure 10 and suggests that unsafe acts of individuals create most accidents. Modern safety experts say that adhering to the Heinrich model can lead to an overemphasis on worker behavior and insufficient attention to system design and operating and maintenance practices. Heinrich is, however, credited with bringing attention to workplace safety and focusing on the human behavior element of safety, which is, in fact, a critical element. However, it is not sufficient.


Figure 10: Heinrich's accident pyramid

All these safety pyramids have one thing in common. At the bottom are relatively minor acts, incidents, defects, or process variations that ultimately result in a major loss, injury, or even a catastrophe.

Personal safety appears to be influenced more by personal behavior, while process safety is influenced more by design, operating and maintenance practices, training and the like. However, there is considerable overlap, as suggested by Hopkins and shown in Figure 11 as the process and personal safety pyramids. And, in fact, each likely feeds into the other, that is, defects create minor process errors and vice versa, and personal behavior creates defects and minor process errors and vice versa. All the issues are interrelated.


Figure 11: Process safety and personal safety pyramids

Many modern safety experts are less enthused with the pyramid approach and subscribe more to the Swiss cheese model of accident causation, first proposed by James Reason. This model suggests that accidents and injuries, particularly the major ones, are more likely the result of having many holes in your systems and practices, like the layers of Swiss cheese, with each layer representing, for example, poor management, poor system design, poor training, poor decision making and so on. It is only when these holes line up that major incidents occur. Whether you subscribe to the pyramid model or the Swiss cheese model, it is the defects, process errors and behaviors that are at the root cause of these very undesirable events of injuries, costs and catastrophes. Therefore, they must be addressed through intense operational discipline.

How to Manage All This

To minimize the risk of injury, incidents and major accidents, operational discipline is essential to encourage the appropriate behavior, eliminate the defects, minimize the process errors and foster the discipline in all practices that will reduce risk, including design, operation and maintenance.

Hopkins also suggests that focusing on slips, trips, falls and personal behavior, while cutting costs, will likely expose the business to more hazards and much greater risk. Two messages are being heard: Behave safely by wearing your personal protective equipment, doing your lockout/tagout, holding the handrail, doing your permits to work and so on. But, we don't have enough money for people to do things right, like properly maintain the equipment, calibrate the instruments, add equipment to reduce hazards, train people in new procedures, eliminate spurious alarms, or do any number of things. It's a mixed message to the detriment of the company. People will try to follow the standard safety mantra, all the while seeing other things being done poorly. As demonstrated previously, you can get better personal safety performance, and still a) go out of business, or b) have a major catastrophe.

Granted, you must manage the business to make money or you won't have a business. But, this mixed message exposes the company to greater risk than it otherwise would. It is a delicate balance to manage. However, if you have operational discipline, apply the reliability process, engage the workforce in simple, routine improvement and show appreciation for the improvements, you will get better performance in ALL areas.

Leadership, Alignment and Cultural Change

Supporting this approach requires leadership, alignment and almost always, cultural change. Good leadership is the ability to inspire ordinary people to consistently perform at an extraordinary level, to look forward to coming to work every day. How? By putting employees into a business system that engages and aligns their personal interest with corporate interests. Give them work they like to do; challenge them to improve it; give them the tools to improve it; put them on an improvement team; teach them problem-solving methods; thank them and show your appreciation when they do a good job; send them to training, but when they return, make sure they use the training received. In other words, engage them. According to one study, engaged employees are three times more productive than others. According to another, eliminating the small, day-to-day problems has a much bigger impact on performance than focusing on the major problems. Think of hundreds of people routinely engaged in process improvement and defect elimination, and then think about what happens to costs, performance, and safety, both personal and process.

Alignment requires the repeated articulation of the strategy, goals and respective roles from the CEO to the shop floor. It also requires measures and systems that reinforce the strategy, goals and roles. It is really hard work. According to the studies, most organizations are not very well aligned. Most functions within a given organization operate within their silo, optimizing at the suboptimal level. Having everyone think at a systems level with regards to the impact their decisions will have on the business as a whole and aligned to a common corporate strategy, not just their department's, is essential.

Regarding cultural change, when asked, "Do people want to change?," many people will reply something to the effect of, "No, they do not; they're stuck in their old ways." Many will disagree with this view. People do want to change if given a compelling reason to change, if there's something in it for them (e.g., better pay, less hassle, more secure future, etc.) and, most importantly, if they participate in creating the changes and thus have ownership for them. It's up to the leadership of an organization to align the organization and facilitate change by applying these principles and to use safety as a compelling reason for change. Incidentally, cultural change isn't something you do once and it's done. It, too, is a continuing effort.

To this end, and given the data presented, organizations must have a policy for reliability, one that parallels, or is even integrated with, its safety policy. Consider the following safety policy, which mirrors that of many companies and to which additional words have been added in italics to address personal and plant safety:

  • All injuries and failures are preventable.
  • No task is so urgent that it cannot be done safely and reliably.
  • Management must provide a safe and reliable work environment.
  • We are each responsible for preventing injuries and failures.
  • Everyone is empowered to stop unsafe and unreliable behavior.


Many companies have safety policies, but few, if any, have combined these policies to include reliability as a core value. Moreover, if CEOs of these companies truly believe that safety is a top priority, they would have policies for reliability, linking reliability and safety. If they truly believe in safety, they would give at least as much attention to reliability and operational discipline as they do to high-powered consulting companies. The truth is they do not and their commitment to a holistic view of safety is relatively weak. And as a result, the company and its people are at greater risk.

Getting both personal and process safety requires operational discipline - tenacious use of best practices in all areas.

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