Human factors briefing note no. 20 – Occupational safety vs. process safety

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EI Publications

  • Published: July 2011
  • REF/ISBN: 9780852936085-20
  • Edition: 2nd
  • Status: Current

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Occupational safety – focuses on protecting the safety, health and welfare of people at work (sometimes called ‘personal safety’).

Process safety – focuses on major accident hazards associated with releases of energy, chemicals, and other hazardous substances.

What’s the issue?

The iceberg (or Heinrich) triangle

Through the collection of accident data, it is widely understood that beneath every major accident there are a few serious accidents, many minor accidents and many incidents (or near-misses). When we see a large-scale serious event (although these are rare), this is believed to only be the tip of the iceberg. It follows from this that, if you can substantially reduce the incidents and minor accidents, the rate of occurrence of more serious accidents should also reduce. This assumes, though, that each type of accident has a similar set of underlying causes. For instance a ship board programme to tidy up housekeeping and focus on injury accidents may reduce all types of injury accidents to virtually zero. Not only will there be a reduction in cuts and scratches but there will also be a reduction in serious injuries, and even deaths from similar causes. However, it will not address conditions that concern, say, how different cargos are stored and the danger of explosion, or how the ship is navigated. Those are the conditions that will affect whether the vessel stays afloat or not.

Occupational safety performance is often measured with reference to an accident ‘triangle’ or pyramid (e.g. Reference 1). A typical accident triangle suggests that there are hundreds of near-misses or unsafe acts for every fatality. An organisation that has excellent near-miss reporting for occupational safety may believe that it is doing well to control the potential for losses, but the process safety hazards may not necessarily be identified.

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