Safety Is No Coincidence: A Historical View of Functional Safety

It’s no secret. Accidents involving chemicals and mechanical and electrical processes pose a threat to humans and the environment. And throughout the years, there have been a number of incidents – often having a degenerative impact on safety at first – that have helped shaped the industry as we know it today.

Safety climates are built over time. They are influenced by the attitudes and values of industrial pioneers of the times, as well as by plant operators. Safety cultures embody the value that is placed on safety in any given time. We’re looking back and examining some of these milestones to better understand the transformation of safety climates and cultures.

Defining a Culture of Safety

Lessons are learned and safety cultures are formed through experience. Governments and regulatory bodies, industry chiefs, and technology developers have worked continuously to improve risk management in plants. And, as a result of tireless research and innovation, safety solutions now exist to help plant operators better understand hazards and how to eradicate them.

But how did we get to this point?

During the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century, factory owners championed production and profit above all. This led to treacherous working conditions; machines were dirty, expelled harmful toxins, and were generally unsafe. Enter the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act in 1802 (sometimes referred to as the Factory Act). This required factories to provide proper ventilation and clean work spaces. While it was not regularly enforced, it set a precedent for acts that followed. And we’re focusing on them in this article, paying particular attention to the last 50 years.

Late 20th Century Safety: 1970–1990

A string of industrial disasters in the first half of the 20th century catalyzed a change in safety responsibilities, especially in the chemical and process industries. Organizations began to promote a healthy culture of safety to prevent future catastrophes and also to understand why past incidents occurred.

In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 marked a major turning point for industrial safety. Codes of practice and goal-based regulations came into force. And in the United Kingdom, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 followed a similar ‘prevention-over-compensation’ approach.

During this period, technologies were catching up with regulation, as the process and nuclear industries established practices for design and maintenance of fail-safe shutdown systems.

In the following years, the European Union (EU) reacted to an occurrence at an Italian chemical plant. A record number of people – believed to be around 37,000 – were exposed to toxic emissions after a runaway reaction forced a relief valve to open. Directive 82/501/EEC (The Seveso Directive) was applied to industrial establishments across the EU. This not only forced changes in the classification of certain chemicals and how they should be stored; it standardized safety reporting and permits. The latest version of the directive still applies to over 12,000 industrial establishments within the EU.

Dawning of a New Era

Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, huge technological leaps were made. Electromechanical devices, such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), were made cheaper and were readily available. The process industries were undergoing huge change in terms of safety.

Early skepticism over electronic solutions for functional safety proved to be needless. Technologies were believed to require extra staff and intensive training of existing staff. A select few couldn’t see value in the innovations. Safety lifecycle approaches were adopted, meaning plant operators were designing plants and processes with safety at the fore.

By 1995, safety systems in the form of software and hardware were becoming larger and more complex. The focus now was on ‘proving’ safety. Enter IEC 61508.

The Smart Safety Era: To IEC and Beyond

Today, companies rely on functional safety to achieve safety of high-risk equipment. IEC 61508 is used as a basis for sector and product standards. IEC 61511 works in tandem with IEC 61508 to provide all-round-safety for processing plants.

Unfortunately, despite standardization, there is no blanket solution for creating a culture of safety. It is the task of facility operators, staff, and regulatory bodies to ensure that all bases are covered. IEC 61508 sets out the requirements for ensuring that systems are designed, implemented, operated, and maintained to provide the required safety integrity level (SIL). Four SILs are defined according to the risks involved in the system application, with SIL 4 being used to protect against the highest risks.

In the era of the connected smart factory, safety solutions are flexible to suit plant processes. Operators can take an active approach to functional safety and respond quickly to safety-related failures. This is mostly attributed to advancements in big data and machine learning.

However, a reality of today is the challenge of protecting plants from a different kind of interruption. In a time where networks and automation are growing, hackers can exploit any weaknesses in security, potentially putting plants at risk of serious damage. This is yet another challenge that operators and staff will need to take a mindful and active approach to.

In the past, tighter safety standards often occurred as a result of accidents. HIMA continues to build on 50 years’ experience in safety-critical processes to drive the process industry into an era of smart safety and security. Our specialist teams help companies to identify risks at an early stage so that critical situations can be avoided.