The relationship between safety and reliability is too often overlooked. Reliability is the key to unlocking improved process plant safety and a more productive, cost-effective plant.
By Andrew Fraser, Managing Director of Reliable Manufacturing
Process plant safety is a hot topic, and for good reason. Legislation and a desire to maintain a good reputation underpin a natural concern for employee welfare. A safe plant makes for a productive, pleasant work environment, but a working day in the process industry is unpredictable with the potential for accidents never far away.
However, when a process plant is working reliably, the amount of urgent reactive action needed is reduced. Studies show that increasing the proportion of preventive and predictive maintenance work results in a clear decrease in the number of injuries, in some cases by as much as 50%. Yet few companies recognise this close relationship between reliability and safety, and fewer still give reliability the same credence as safety. Not only is reliability key to achieving safety goals, it can also boost efficiency and reduce cost.
Twenty years ago, action on safety was typically reactive, addressed when prompted by an incident, accident or investigation. We’ve come a long way from those days, and the majority of businesses recognise the importance of establishing an extensive safety policy. Leading companies ensure that reliability is a key element in their safety policy; a reliable plant is a safe plant, is a cost-effective plant.
Process Plant Safety = Reliability
Although reliability isn’t the only way to ensure a safer process plant, it is very difficult for companies to have a good safety record without being reliable. It’s been seen before; the disproportionate management energy required to achieve safety performance in a reactive environment can lead to neglecting other key aspects of operational performance. By chasing a perfect safety record without changing the nature of the working environment which is contributing to those accidents, such as unreliability, asset utilisation can drop dramatically, leaving companies struggling financially.
There is strong evidence to support the theory that a reliable plant is a safer plant. Data collected from a large US paper manufacturing company across some fifteen plants worldwide, over a five-year period (see figure below), shows the plants’ asset utilisation (blue) against injury rate (red). As asset utilisation goes up, the injury rate comes down. The correlation between the two is 80%; this is remarkably high for industrial data. What’s more, higher asset and production utilization obviously helps generate revenue growth. So not only will reliability decrease injuries, it will also increase efficiency and yield significant financial benefits.
Most accidents occur in reactive situations. When a plant is running well, with high asset utilisation, there are fewer failures to react to. A key facet of a reliable plant is less reactive maintenance (any work not scheduled at least seven days in advance). Research by Exxon Mobil shows that maintenance staff are five times more likely to get injured during a reactive task than during one which has been planned. Furthermore, a study by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, entitled ‘Maintenance and Occupational Safety and Health – A Statistical Review’, found that reactive maintenance staff were more likely to be exposed to extreme heat, extreme cold, humidity, loud noises and dangerous substances. A reliable plant is in the enviable position of being able to plan ahead and set out a weekly scheduled maintenance plan, reducing unnecessary reactive work and, consequently, injuries.
But of course, reliability does not begin and end with maintenance. It’s like blaming your garage for the poor reliability of your car. They didn’t design and build it, nor do they operate it on a daily basis; the garage just fixes the defects. For a dramatic, sustainable change in reliability and safety, the best approach is to affect cultural change. This begins with leadership making it clear that reliability is fundamental to the way the business is run and encouraging all employees to take responsibility and ownership for the care of assets. To achieve reliability, it is necessary to design, buy, store, install and start up, operate and maintain assets in such a way that it avoids introducing defects that would otherwise result in downtime, extra cost and safety and environmental events.
A quick & easy fit – it is not…
Establishing a culture of reliability throughout an organisation is not a quick process, nor is it an easy one. But adopting a parallel top-down, bottom-up approach to improvement, and breaking this mammoth task into smaller ones, is a good start and can bring some instant results. From those in the highest executive roles to staff on the front line of operations and maintenance work, inspiring a culture of reliability and increased safety is only possible when a sense of excitement for pursuing a safer, more efficient workplace is instilled. This will ultimately yield huge results; those closest to the work are best placed to observe what is and isn’t working and thus are integral to effecting change. Many companies report that after working on a reliability policy, staff are more likely to look after the equipment in the plant, call maintenance less frequently and have a better sense of how important they are in the overall running of the business.
The challenge then becomes sustaining these improvements. A leading UK-based petrochemical company has been working through the sustainable performance improvement process developed by Reliable Manufacturing and, as a result of high level commitment, company-wide involvement and regular assessments, has since reached record production levels. The three phase process is as follows:
- Phase 1 – Engage
Help employees understand the need for change and ‘unfreeze’ the way things have been done in the past. Educate them in good operations and maintenance practises and engage them in the actual process of change. Get each department working together to push change forward.
- Phase 2 – Transformation
If a substantial amount of the workforce understand the need for change, and their role in making those changes a reality, the entire business will be able to work together to transform old, inefficient practices into new ways of working to promote both safety and reliability.
- Phase 3 – Sustain
Sustainability is the name of the game. With front line supervisors and workers on board, sustainability is much more attainable. But to uphold high reliability and safety levels, continuous improvement is the best bet. Audit the new working processes introduced during phase 2 to see what is working and improve upon what isn’t. The processing industry isn’t stagnant; nor should working processes be.
Creating a sustainable culture of reliability in a plant prompts improvements across the entirety of the business, from lower injury rates to higher asset and production utilization. In due course, these advantages lead to improved customer satisfaction and ultimately, revenue growth. With a reliable plant, staff are safer, more invested in their work and time isn’t wasted dealing with unpleasant surprises, so delivering high quality service can take priority.