“I hated being pregnant, but I never minded being in labor.  I knew I would get a prize at the end.”  — Chris Schmidt, mother of four

Things have been a little crazy in Saint Louis for the past week. Founded in 1967, the Blues Hockey Club has finally won a Stanley Cup. Everyone feels like a winner, but much of the local buzz is about the fan who bet $400 in January on the then last-place Blues for a payoff of $100,000

We’re all motivated by the promise of rewards. There are even efforts to motivate us to be safe with the promise of prizes, although they often fall afoul of OSHA regulations when they serve, not to make us safer, but to encourage us to not report incidents. Ultimately, though, safety has to be its own reward.

The Business Case for Safety

The Center for Chemical Process Safety published the 2nd Edition of its booklet, The Business Case for Process Safety, in 2006. It identified a number of ways that businesses benefit from a good process safety program:

  • Reducing process risk
  • Sustaining shareholder value
  • Demonstrating corporate responsibility
  • Allowing business flexibility

The problem with this argument is not that it is untrue, but that it is incomplete. A business case requires quantifying both the cost and the benefit. When those of us interested in process safety set out to make the business case, we are usually at a loss to quantify the cost of implementing a robust and effective process safety program. We can list the benefits, but we are usually hard pressed to quantify the benefits. Why? Partly, it is because the business case already takes credit for the benefits of process safety, regardless of whether a process safety program has been taken into account.

Too often, the cost of implementing a robust and effective process safety program is seen as just that—a cost. So, we are left to fall back on Trevor Kletz’ admonishment, “If you think safety is expensive, try an accident.” It’s a great bumper sticker slogan, but not a business case.

Perhaps it is time to stop thinking of process safety as a business proposition, since it is difficult to quantify in a cost-benefit analysis, and to recognize it as its own reward. Our process safety program should have three goals, which we all know is a hat trick.

First Goal: Fortune Favors the Well-Prepared

We hate to admit it, but the difference between a catastrophic release and a near miss is often luck. Rarely does process safety eliminate risk, but it does lower the risk of a catastrophic release, which means shifting good fortune in our favor. But process safety does more than that. It also reduces the risk of less severe releases, both by making us more aware of them so we are better prepared when they happen, and by prompting us to put measures in place that make them less likely.

Second Goal: Worth It and Perfect are Not the Same Things

A manufacturing manager once told me that the only way for the operations group to meet expectations was to be perfect. Target rates and yields are estimated based on operating without upset, by operating perfectly. Anything less than perfect falls short of expectations. In our hearts, we know these expectations are unrealistic, yet, there they are.

Sustaining value is the other side of the reduced risk coin. Not only is risk reduced, but in the absence of the process upsets and interruptions that come with process safety events, plants run as planned, making production targets, avoiding unplanned capital expenditures, or the expensive distraction of recovery. Process safety is worth it because it moves us closer to the perfection we are already expecting.

Hat Trick: Permission to Operate

Demonstrating corporate responsibility and allowing business flexibility are two sides of the same coin. When an enterprise has a robust and effective process safety program in place, it can point to that program as evidence of its commitment to its workers, its community, and the environment. The program promotes good will, helping to assure the continued blessing to operate.

Moreover, the absence of process safety events, which a robust and effective process safety program helps to assure, can be a convincing argument for allowing an enterprise the flexibility to run as it as it determines is best. There is nothing like a catastrophic release to prompt the community and the government to constrain that flexibility, or withdraw permission entirely.

Process Safety Is Its Own Reward

It is great to go from last place to winning the Stanley Cup. Just ask the people of St. Louis. While you’re at it, ask any mother of a healthy newborn if her labor was worth it. It would be great if every worthy effort resulted in a tangible reward, something you could point to as evidence of a successful conclusion.

Process safety doesn’t work that way, though. It doesn’t conclude and it is not marked by the presence of something tangible you can point to. The evidence of process safety is not in the tangible, but in the absence of anything tangible. The absence of fires, of explosions, of toxic releases. Process safety is successful when today is no more remarkable than yesterday, and tomorrow is no more remarkable than today. Process safety is most remarkable when it is unremarkable.

Let process safety be its own reward.