IPC ’15: Former CSB chair Bresland outlines new process safety challenges

By Ben DuBose
Online Editor

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Community expectations and the increasing use of social media present new challenges to global petrochemical operators as they attempt to improve industry process safety practices.

John Bresland, former chair of the US Chemical Safety Board and president of the Process Safety Risk Assessment LLC group in West Virginia, spoke in Monday's general session at IPC on the petrochemical regulatory landscape.

Bresland noted quite a few changes and challenges in recent years within process safety, but also took a positive tone in addressing potential opportunities as well.

"From the statistics I've seen, in 2011, there were 166 incidents characterized as serious," said Bresland. "In 2012, that number was 106. In 2013, it was 101. There's a general downward trend."

Nonetheless, even one accident can have devastating consequences within the local community, Bresland warned. He cited his own experience running a chemical plant in Philadelphia, which he says was the worst-located plant in all of North America in terms of location because it was right in a very densely-populated part of the city.

"Their expectations of us were that there would not be any incidents," Bresland said. "Sometimes we met those expectations for a long period of time, but other times we really didn't do very well.

"Your community's expectation is that you have zero incidents," he continued. "Unless you do that, you're going to run into problems within your community."

Bresland noted that the issue of a community license to operate remains critical.

"Even though you have a regulatory program with EPA and OSHA and you meet all those requirements, if you don’t meet requirements of your community, you’re going to have very significant problems," Bresland said.

Bresland also cautioned that the increasing use of social media presents a problem for operators. For example, Bresland said that when he woke up on Monday, he checked his iPhone and learned that ExxonMobil had a serious overnight fire in Beaumont.

"It's just incredible how quickly this info passes, not just to people like me but all over the world," he said. "You have to be aware of this new issue of social media and how you deal with people who put out information that may or may not be accurate about you and your operations."

Bresland broke down modern chemical companies into three particular categories of risk. Type one are those that simply do not understand all the hazards of their operations, while type two understands the hazards and regulations and has excellent safety programs, but still sees some incidents. Type three companies are the most rare in that they take all necessary precautions, maintain constant diligence and don't have any accidents.

Bresland said that from his experience with the CSB, most companies found themselves among the type two, while a select few had advanced all the way to type three. He cited Shell as a possible example of the latter.

Bresland also touched on recent turmoil at the CSB, which saw a forced resignation earlier this month by former CSB chairman Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso. The board is expected to make a number of new hires in the coming months, and Bresland said it's imperative that industry be better represented.

"If there's one thing I urge you to do, it's to send a message to lawmakers and say we really do need somebody to lobby to get somebody who knows something about the industry," said Bresland.

Bresland concluded by offering a short list of his rules for safe operations and process safety success, starting with the fact that leadership must start at the top.

"The key is hiring and educating the right people," Bresland said.

Other key priorities include testing emergency response programs on a regular basis to ensure the reliability of people and equipment, focusing on the details, maintaining data metrics on both personnel and processes, and taking the "long view" on risk management.

"Plan for emergencies and test your plans," said Bresland. "Above all else, we've got to avoid complacency with our safety culture."

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