Utilities are great at occupational safety—it’s in their DNA. But the next challenge for electric utilities is process safety. What is it, why does it matter and how do you do it?

Occupational safety is great; more is needed

Utilities really understand occupational safety. It’s second nature for them at the activity level, such as reducing workplace accidents. But gas utilities’ experiences, in particular, show that fatal errors happen when people aren’t thinking about activities collectively—as a process. Dealing with that problem means taking a holistic view of safety, end to end. And as we look ahead, electric utilities must learn from American Petroleum Institute’s RP 1173 and apply process safety to their own organizations.

Process safety in a nutshell

If you’re the same age as me (or even if you’re not!) here’s the analogy for process safety: picture that famous “I Love Lucy” episode with Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory conveyer belt. She’s ready to wrap each chocolate as it passes by. At first, things go fine. On goes the conveyer belt…out come the chocolates…she wraps each one….but then, “speed it up”’ cries the supervisor, and everything unravels (think hats and mouths stuffed with chocolates, and the rest careening off the end)!

Jokes aside, this scenario nails process safety. By “speeding up the belt” you think you’re being more efficient. But unless you look at the whole process, and the overall effect of your decisions, you can’t see the result holistically. In reality, speeding up the belt may create pinch points or unforeseen dangers that undermine the whole process, with your metaphorical chocolates falling off the end.

In a nutshell, process safety is an enterprise-wide framework for infusing leading safety practices in all operational management processes. That includes risk management, asset management and emergency management. And at all levels/structures of the organization, from executives to the front line.

Applying the idea to electric utilities for a moment, here’s an example: When you’re selecting equipment, how do you do that right now? Maybe based on 1) expense and 2) fitness for purpose. Which means the decision is taken in isolation. Now let’s think of the equipment with the lens of process safety—all the ways in which that equipment decision affects other activities, people and departments. How is it installed and how safe is installation? What is needed to maintain it? For instance, frequent maintenance needs = more hands-on effort and risk. What new skills are needed to use the equipment and how will we train workers to cut risk? What new technologies may workers need to master to use it safely?

Getting a handle on process safety with a safety management system

To make process safety real, you need a safety management system (SMS) which documents and manages safety end to end. Let’s think of a scenario: If an electricity cable goes down, how do you notify people in proximity? Old model: field worker knocks on some doors to warn local residents to keep away or communications department issues blanket safety messages, hoping the effected people hear the warning. New model: Enact the specific process flow for that problem, including: how the field worker logs the problem; what pre-determined information the public need, in what radius, what format, and delivered by whom? (Because by now you’ll already have planned all this out with local community groups). Knowing how to respond in turn lifts pressure from the field worker.

And all of this improves public safety, by knowing in advance how you’ll respond and who needs to do what.

SMS must live and breathe to have value

SMS isn’t about writing a process flow, putting it in a binder and moving on to the next thing. For it to work, it must breathe and that means embedding it into culture and behavior. How? Technology can help fix some of the ongoing stumbling blocks. For example, utilities’ processes are only as good as what they can record and prove. Record keeping can be simplified through technology, allowing users to access what they need in the appropriate ways (and moving past spreadsheets on hard drives) and drive up auditability.

It really is doable. It takes investment, plus an active decision to reinvent safety operations. One of my clients has been the first utility in North America to implement an SMS within electric operations, setting a clear goal to be the leader in process safety. They’ve successfully created a culture of collaboration to actively engage the right people, at the right time, to define their processes and begin to embed them. Now it’s time for all electric utilities to follow suit.

Electric utilities must update their safety DNA for a new age. Contact me to find out how.

Steve Owens

Principal Director – Transmission & Distribution

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