How to Assess and Improve Chemical Plant Safety: A guest post

In my home town, in a recent news story, we were told of a community protest against a chemical plant and its emissions. The local authorities moved quickly to at least temporarily close the plant. Little did they know that action would have repercussions beyond the local community. It turns out that the process being shut down may make it more difficult for surgeries to get done because of the impact on the sterilization of equipment. Thus, when I was offered this guest post I thought it might be relevant to a number of audiences. This post was written by Megan R. Nicols, STEM writer and blogger.

Chemical manufacturing and processing plants are inherently rife with potential dangers. Occupational hazards are always a concern with employees, such as slips or falls, but there’s so much more that can go wrong. When working with volatile chemicals or substances, for instance, there’s a risk for explosions and fires. Acidic or caustic chemicals might eat away at protective gear or machinery components. Poisonous vapors or fumes may pose a pulmonary threat.

It’s not a stretch to claim that maintaining safety within these facilities is a significant challenge, one that deserves adequate attention and resolve. Safety is such a vital component of operation that it requires much more than a single risk reduction strategy. It calls for adherence to a widespread cultural mindset.

Every level of an organization — which means everyone within the facility — must understand its role as it pertains to safety. A collective including organizational structure, modern technology, suitable management processes, and human collaboration are what make sustained safety a possibility. Altogether, it generates a culture of safety within an organization, holding every individual accountable not just for their safety but that of others around them too.

To achieve such a thing, or really to improve safety within a chemical plant, organizations must first assess the situation and then implement the much-needed cultural changes.

Assessing and Identifying Potential Hazards

OSHA describes a failure to identify and recognize present hazards in a workplace as a primary or “root cause” of injuries, illnesses and incidents. The key to anticipating and preventing problems is first to understand when, how and why they might occur in the first place.

That can be done using a conventional form of risk assessment, particularly one that looks at potential hazards and dangers throughout a facility. It’s more than just a one-and-done process, however, as it should be continually leveraged throughout the scope of an organization’s lifetime. It’s why a cultural shift is needed because when everyone on site is involved, it significantly improves the success rate and decreases the number of preventable risks.

Every risk assessment plan should consider the following:

  • Hazards present as a result of routine work
  • New or recurring hazards that appear as a result of process changes
  • Close calls or near misses to determine underlying dangers and how they may be prevented
  • Past injuries, accidents or illnesses that occurred and what could have been done to stop them
  • Areas or rooms of high risk
  • Dangers that may arise during an emergency or a provoked incident
  • Hazards that appear as a result of non-routine operations
  • Equipment failures and other machine-related events that may create hazards
  • Environmental conditions such as temperature, weather, and climate changes
  • Negligence on the part of active workers and how that affects the surrounding community
  • Additional security factors such as those related to the chemical facility anti-terrorism standards (CFATS)

Mainly, the proper parties should collect and compile extensive information about potential workplace hazards to help better understand where problems might occur. It should be done initially, of course, to get the lay of the land. But a dynamic team should conduct risk assessments regularly to identify potential changes and updates, as well.

How to Improve Workplace Safety

Only after the potential hazards have been appropriately identified and assessed — and continue to be — can you truly take action. Use the information gleaned to build a proactive or preventative system that works to reduce potential risks before something severe occurs.

Something as simple as a spill, for example, should be cleaned by the nearest party or upon its discovery. By taking action immediately, it prevents others from stumbling upon the area and having an accident. It simultaneously encourages workers to be more accountable for their actions, which may have been the cause of the spill in the first place.

Not all accidents are a result of poor housekeeping, however. That’s when it’s necessary to draw up and deploy the proper protocols, which requires a degree of training and education. Everyone should be suitably informed about the environment, potential hazards, and safety requirements. Furthermore, the only way to ensure procedures are being followed is to conduct regular safety audits of the workforce. Examinations should only ever be used to assess the ongoing performance and help educate workers and build awareness about their involvement. No punishment should occur unless there’s a clear or direct sign of negligence, or if there are repeated offenses.

To ingrain safety as part of the company’s ethos, senior management, executives and supervisors should all be willing to prioritize and provide ample attention to the issue.

New and modern technologies can also be incorporated to this end, to help improve the ongoing analysis and understanding of a facility’s safety.

To sum it up, the action plan for improvement should look something like this:

  1. Assess the current facility and all necessary elements to understand potential hazards and dangers
  2. Educate and train all workers, supervisors and personnel about workplace safety and their relevant responsibilities
  3. Take action to improve existing processes and procedures while also upgrading facility systems — this would be where you install new safety-monitoring technologies, for instance
  4. If you haven’t already, create a team that will be responsible for routinely assessing and auditing facility safety
  5. Require personnel to take action whenever possible like cleaning up spills, wearing safety gear, properly maintaining machinery and more
  6. Strive towards a persistent level of improvement, encouraging safety as a top concern for all

Safety Must Remain a Priority for All

Provided the organization can make the necessary changes at each level of an operation, then safety will automatically improve. It is vital, however, that it continues to remain a priority for the organization, and improvement must always be a focus. Barring that, a lapse in safety can and will occur, resulting in a hazardous environment for anyone present.

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