Functional safety through the supply chain

11 September 2013

John Walkington and Stuart Nunns argue that process and functional safety management is complicated by the fact that process owners have a duty of care to ensure that everyone in the supply chain is providing equipment and services that comply with safe practice.

When people talk about health and safety at work even today there is a tendency to focus on managing the statistics associated with occupational safety issues, such as slips and trips and falls. Fortunately, most of the injuries from these sorts of accidents are relatively minor when compared to the potential consequences of some of the other possible risks and hazards associated with high-hazard industrial workplaces. In contrast, process safety management is about securing industrial facilities against the sort of incidents that can lead to headline-grabbing catastrophes.

In the past five years there has been a shift in the legal landscape for those responsible for safety in the process industries. Breaches in functional safety no longer impact just on the corporate entity. Today, they can also have an impact down to the level of individual managers.

In this environment, process safety management and its implementation through functional safety management regimes is more important than ever. If the worst happens, process owners and managers will need to demonstrate to the relevant regulatory authorities that they have fulfilled their duty of care.

At the same time, there has been enormous competitive pressure on process operators in high hazard industries such as the oil and gas sector to streamline their operations. For many companies, this has meant outsourcing expertise and manpower that is not central to the core business. While this may result in lower operating costs and a leaner organisation, it can also mean that certain in-house capabilities have been reduced.

The challenge of change
Of course, day-to-day safety will always be a priority in any responsible organisation, but a lack of in-house competent resources can make it difficult to manage and optimise functional safety reliably when any big changes occur, such as during a new-build project or major upgrade.

In every phase of a project and in ongoing operations following completion, the individuals responsible for functional safety management need to identify hazards and risks and build in layers of protection to reduce those risks to a tolerable level. Protection will probably include control measures such as safety instrumented systems (SIS), physical protection such as pressure relief and containment systems, as well as management and working practices that build safety into daily operations and are designed to promote traceability and transparency (with human factor considerations included).

Someone needs to own this functional safety role. The difficulty, however, is that large projects often involve complex supply chains, including the owner/end user, the primary contractor, several secondary contractors, component suppliers and system integrators – the list can include dozens of separate entities. Then there is the regulatory compliance input on top of that.

In the past, process owners may have had an entire team responsible for designing, specifying, checking and verifying safety-related systems. Today it might be just one person who takes on the responsibilities of implementing functional safety in addition to other duties.
Competency expectations
So, who should manage functional safety? The right person will need enough expertise to ask the right questions of contractors and suppliers and to understand the answers. A competency model needs to be established covering knowledge, experience, training and qualifications. These need to be measured against a specific set of functional and task-related competencies, set in a specific context.

There is no tick-box prescription for the perfect functional safety responsible manager, but they will invariably derive the necessary expertise from a combination of the following:

Knowledge – They may have specific functional safety competencies at a sector, plant and systems level, covering a multitude of technologies. They will know about the relevant regulations and directives.

Experience – Someone with, say, 10-15 years of working in relevant roles within the industry will typically have an in-depth understanding of functional safety issues, with or without higher level qualifications.

Industry training – Third-party certified or equivalent training providers can deliver continuing professional development with functional safety in mind. Some also add to this training by way of a third-party certificate for the individual, which recognises their functional safety competence.

Qualifications – They may have specific qualifications that give them the background knowledge to understand the relevant theory related to safety-instrumented systems. Qualifications might include:
• A degree or similar in control engineering/system safety engineering.
• Personal professional development leading to Chartered or Incorporated Engineer status.
• Formal recognition by industry peers as an expert in the field.
No matter how competent the person might be for the role, those responsible for functional safety compliance requirements today are likely to have far fewer resources at their disposal than they might have done in the past. Given such pressures on resources and time, this means that they are effectively looking for ways to manage as much of the work as possible down through the supply chain. The priority then is for them to understand enough about functional safety management to engage with suppliers and ensure that each organisation is fulfilling its responsibilities and securing its deliverables in the overall safety lifecycle supply chain.

Functional safety standards have a vital role to play here. More specifically, using suppliers and contractors that are third-party certified as compliant with IEC61511 and IEC61508 can give process owners and operators additional confidence that they can rely on the organisations they’re working with not to drop the ball on functional safety. What’s more, it means that the functional safety deliverables within the supply chain are demonstrable and transparent to key stakeholders, both internally and beyond the end user organisation.

In practice, this means that a company supplying safety related systems in accordance with good practice standards will be able to offer robust designs and have the testing and verification processes in place to ensure that critical safety systems are installed fit-for-purpose and will work properly when demands are placed upon them.

About the authors
John Walkington is department manager and Stuart Nunns is principal managing consultant at ABB’s Safety Lead Competency Centre. ABB has a 20-strong worldwide network of Safety Execution Centres (SECs) which provide certified functional safety design and engineering using certified products with certified engineers. They offer the full range of SIS, up to and including SIL 3 for the most hazardous duties. In addition, they provide consultancy in functional and process safety on new projects, as well as full-service support for the installed base of SIS.

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