Ten differences between process safety and occupational safety (Day 166)

Work safetyOne of the most important roles that chemical engineers can play is improving safety.

A good example of this is the IChemE Safety Centre (ISC) which sets up a new impetus and framework for process safety.

Despite the good work of chemical engineers in mitigating dangerous events, they still occur.

Often the reason given for these incidents is a lack of understanding of what process safety is and how it differs from occupational safety.

For example people often use this to explain why the BP Texas City refinery explosion and fire, which sadly killed 15 people and injured 180 more, occurred. It has been suggested that there was too great a focus on reducing the high number of occupational safety incidents, rather than the more infrequent but much more serious process safety incidents.

I have put together this list of ten differences between process and occupational (personal) safety to help dispel this (however it should be noted that this list is my opinion and there is a lot of overlap between process and occupational safety – hence the confusion!):

1. Process safety incidents happen at a lower frequency

Process safety incidents happen at a lower frequency; occupational safety incidents happen at a higher frequency. This is often a problem as a proactive approach to safety means that you may focus on the highest occurrences of incidents, rather than focus on the most serious ones.

2. Process safety prevents hazardous releases

Process safety includes the prevention of unintentional releases of chemicals, energy or other hazardous materials; whereas occupational safety generally refers to classic health and safety, normally associated with the prevention of trips, slips and falls.

Here is a great YouTube video explaining this:


3. Process safety protects everyone

Process safety protects workers and the public alike; occupational safety protects workers. The consequences of not implementing process safety can be far reaching, affecting people living locally to the site or even consumers. Negligence can have a wide impact.

4. Process safety considers humans, the environment and business

Process safety considers the consequences of accidents at the human, environmental and business level; occupational safety considers consequences at a human level only.

5. Process safety focuses on changing systems

Process safety focuses on changing system design in which behaviour occurs rather than bringing in new equipment; occupational safety focusing on changing an individual’s behaviour.

6. Process safety is expensive

Monied hatProcess safety is more expensive to implement; occupational safety is normally cheaper. Because of the scale of investment required to guarantee process safety the costs can seem high, however as I discussed in my blog ‘When 99.9 per cent just isn’t good enough’ the price of not paying these costs is not worth considering. It is estimated that the cost of poor hydrocarbon process safety from 1974 to 2013 was US$ 34 billion.

7. Process safety is misunderstood

Process safety can be complicated to understand by people external to it and needs clear and concise communication to succeed; occupational safety is easier to understand because it affects us all. Whilst to become an expert in either process or occupational safety requires specialist training, understanding the importance of occupational safety is easy, we are all taught at a young age not to run with scissors! Understanding the details of process safety often requires complex technical knowledge that we as chemical engineers need to work hard to translate to ensure it is understood.

8. Process safety deals with major hazards

Process safety addresses major hazards that are more likely to result in major incidents with big consequences; occupational safety addresses incidents involving personal safety at an individual level with small consequences. Process safety deals with mitigating big incidents such as fire, explosions, pollution etc. whereas process safety mitigates small incidents such as cuts and broken bones.

9. Process safety needs high level support

Risk managementProcess safety needs to focus on educating your boss; occupational safety needs to focus on educating your staff. Unlike occupational safety where operators and workers can bring about change, process safety is reliant on your boss and board understanding its importance and implementing the improvements required to guarantee culture changes.

10. Process safety should be discussed by all

Process safety should be on the agenda at all board meetings; occupational safety needs to be on the agenda at team meetings. When process safety is not routinely discussed it leaves open the chance that it is forgotten or important aspects are missed. Ensuring that it is discussed at the highest level means that this cannot be the case.

And one similarity: Process and occupational safety are both important!

If anyone wants to discuss this further I would like to point you in the direction of LinkedIn, where some IChemE members have been participating in a very interesting and long-term discussion on process safety.

It is vital to remember that the enemies of safety are complacency, arrogance and ignorance. To be successful with process safety you must be passionate about it and communicate the message – process safety matters!

2 thoughts on “Ten differences between process safety and occupational safety (Day 166)

  1. An interesting list of ten differences that help in the understanding of the differences between these two important areas of safety.


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