INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership

Process Safety: “A Life Saving Mission”

Abdullah Hassan Al-Qahtani, Chief Engineer, Process Risk Management, SABIC, and Chairman, Gulf Process Safety Network, GPCA, speaks to Insight about the importance of process safety and the opportunities to raise the bar on standards and compliance across the region

Can you shed more light on why process safety is one of the top priorities for regional chemical and petrochemical producers? Please share your top recommendations for fostering a strong process safety culture within an organization.

Chemical and petrochemical industries harness the power of chemistry to yield very valuable products for our well-being. This mission is achieved using and processing hazardous materials based on advanced technologies via complex processes, using sophisticated facilities, and under special – and in many cases harsh – operating conditions, such as extreme temperatures, pressures and reactivity. Process safety is fundamental to manage the associated risks and to prevent undesirable consequences that could impact people, the environment, reputation, assets or the entire business. Globally, the industry has had a tragic history of devastating process safety incidents, which claimed high numbers of lives, and resulted in major and sometimes irreversible damages to the environment and enormous financial losses.

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Therefore, the essence and the primary goal of process safety is to prevent unintended release of hazardous materials or stored energy via managing the integrity of operating systems and processes handling hazardous substances by applying good design principles, engineering, and operating and maintenance practices. By recognizing those critical aspects of process safety,  regional chemical and petrochemical producers are able to successfully identify and adhere to process safety not only as a top priority, but rather as a core value in all operational activities.

The sound culture at any industry manufacturing facility is the backbone and the cornerstone of driving process safety and achieving its primary goals.

A process safety culture is defined as “the combination of group values and behaviors that determine the manner in which process safety is managed” and everyone in the organization has an important role to play. However, the company’s leadership has a primary responsibility to fostering a process safety culture, to continually check its health and sustain it.

The key components to fostering a sound process safety culture are: leadership’s knowledge and commitment, effective management systems and practices, competent workforce, clear and continually enforced performance expectations and standards, structured and effective learning from experience, building mutual trust and promoting safe-to-talk environment.

According to the GPCA Responsible Care Performance Metrics Report 2022, process safety incidents decreased by a substantial 31% compared to the previous year, and by 40% when compared to the total average process safety incidents reported over the previous nine years. How has process safety evolved in the region over the years? What is the role of Responsible Care in driving voluntary commitment and improvement at companies today?

This substantial reduction in process safety incidents as suggested by the reported and aggregated Responsible Care® metrics is a great achievement by the region and an inspiration to keep up the momentum and drive  continuous improvement. The number of incidents is one of the key lagging indicators and typically is a good reflection of the effectiveness of the entire process safety management (PSM), focus and efforts invested at the front end. However, it is vital to monitor the incidents’ severity in order to ensure that this is also being reduced. Aggregating the safety performance sometimes masks critical threats and opportunities, which cannot be seen except at the manufacturing unit level. An absence of incidents may not necessarily represent effective PSM, especially in the short term, as the incident’s precursors could be growing and not yet made an impact. Therefore, most of our focus and attention should be paid to the presence of effective safeguards.

Across the region and over the past years, attention and support by industry leaders for process safety as well as joint efforts among the regional industries have been evolving and would have contributed to the aforementioned improvement in process safety performance. In addition, the GPCA Responsible Care program helped the region to become more focused and aligned and begin synergizing to exchange experience and practices and to learn from each other.  However, due to the criticality of process safety, the GPCA Responsible Care needs to continue supporting the region to shift from reactive and tactical interventions to more proactive and strategic approach by assessing the needs and developing the regional strategic agenda accordingly.

In the context of driving process safety in the region, it is worth highlighting that many remarkable leaps were made, such as developing and implementing the GPCA Responsible Care Process Safety Code, launching the Peer-Review program, establishing the GPCA Responsible Care Excellence Awards and more recently, recording a major milestone by launching the Gulf Process Safety Network (GPSN).

What is the role of policies and regulations in driving higher standards across Health, Safety, Security and the Environment? What change do you wish to see in the future?

Since not everyone has the same level of  commitment and conviction toward managing Health, Safety, Process Safety, Security and the Environment and some may even see it as a burden and significant expense, as it requires investment and resources,  it is fundamental to have independent governmental  bodies to govern and regulate the requirements and enforce compliance among industries. In fact, the set of international regulations, policies and standards we are reaping the benefits from today were developed in response to many major disasters and catastrophic events in the past. Unquestionably, such policies and regulations did support the industries to reach where we are today in term of EHSS compliance, performance and maturity.

For process safety in the region, there are some regulating bodies and in few cases clear regulations and directives with good enforcement mechanism. However, considering the scale and diversity of the industry in the region, I believe this field deserve more and immediate attention by governments to establish dedicated regulating entities at the national level and enable those entities to work collaboratively at a GCC level. Those entities should drive the development of policies, regulations and standards, work as permitting bodies, ensure compliance and as applicable lead or get involved in the investigation of major incidents.

As the Chairman of the Gulf Process Safety Network (GPSN), which GPCA launched in November 2021, can you tell us more about the GPSN and its objectives?

The formation of the GPSN is a very important landmark in the region’s journey toward process safety excellence and I must say this is a dream that became a reality. The Arabian Gulf region with its significant industrial footprint is in real need of a structured platform to promote collaborative work and encourage knowledge exchange and sharing of learnings from incidents among regional industries. The GPSN arrived to fulfil this need and lead the way forward on the regional process safety agenda.

The GPSN supports regional industries by addressing process safety challenges, improving culture, and driving initiatives in line with GPCA’s strategic pillars: Effective Networking, Thought Leadership and Advocacy.

GPCA is launching the inaugural Process Safety Conference this October, which has also been driven by the GPSN. What is the significance of organizing such events and how will delegates benefit from attending?

As part of its charter to enrich process safety knowledge across the region, four process safety workshops were offered by GPSN in 2022-2023. Inspired by the positive impact and growing interest, GPCA decided to launch its inaugural Process Safety Conference with the theme “Enabling Process Safety Leadership: Enriching Knowledge, Catalyzing Commitment” which is powered by the GPSN.

The overarching objective of this conference is to provide an interactive platform for delegates, equipping them with the tools, insights, and opportunities to drive process safety within their organizations. Tapping into the latest developments and solutions, the conference will feature keynote addresses, technical presentations, interactive workshops, and panel discussions, facilitating an effective exchange of knowledge and experiences among industry leaders, professionals, and experts.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would like to conclude by stressing on the criticality of process safety and the importance of exercising our responsibility. We must also demonstrate our commitment and exert all required efforts to drive process safety beyond compliance and strive toward excellence.

I always like to present the commitment to process safety as “A Life Saving Mission” and I am highly inspired and motivated by this quote from the Holy Quran “ … And whoever saves one soul, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.” Surah Al-Maaidah, Ayah 32.