Despite the popular belief that working with gases is highly dangerous, the incidence of deaths and recordable injuries in the industrial gas Industry are relatively low and demonstrate the effectiveness of internal training and safety systems.
Statistics published by the European Industrial Gases Association (EIGA) shows that the Lost Time Injury rate (LTI) declined in Europe from over eight per million man-hours in 1992 to a low of just two in 2009.
For practical reasons, gases are stored and transported either under high pressure, or in liquefied form and this results in a concentration of potential energy. Various forms of energy are associated with industrial gases: mechanical energy is stored when gases are compressed to high pressure; and chemical energy is stored in flammable gas.
Cryogenic liquid gases represent the depletion rather than accumulation of thermal energy and form a super-cold refrigerant. Many gases, if released, will displace air or dilute the available oxygen therefore threatening asphyxiation while others are classified as toxic or corrosive.
Working with gases is not inherently more dangerous than other activities in the manufacturing industry, provided that workers understand the hazards of the gases they use, know the associated risks of the activity they are undertaking, and respect the requirements of defined job-related procedures.
This underlines the importance of ensuring that workers receive appropriate training and achieve the required level of understanding in order to minimise their exposure, and that of the general public, to unnecessary risk.
Common weaknesses in training systems
In many countries we find that mainstream training programmes tend to omit from their curricula, any detailed or specific industrial gas training.
As a result there is a lack of awareness or understanding of gases, their chemical and physical properties, and the risks associated with gas containers, pipelines, regulators and dedicated devices used by many industries in their day-to-day production processes. In those countries that lack strong health and safety legislation and enforcement, the level of knowledge among some workers handling industrial gases may be described as dangerously inadequate.
A widely held, but dangerous, assumption is that workers will over a period of time or during an apprenticeship, gain sufficient knowledge and skills from on-the-job training and that long experience naturally implies an adequate understanding of gas hazards and good safety practice. It’s not uncommon to find that established work practices are incorrect, potentially unsafe and actually put poorly trained workers at increased risk.
Human nature unfortunately finds a way to undermine many well intentioned training initiatives, because some trainees adopt the attitude that training is imposed on them by management in order to waste their time and make their tasks more difficult.
Therefore they fail to recognise the relevance of the knowledge presented to their own situation and later when management’s attention wanes, continue to use the same old unsafe methods. Short-cuts are often perceived to save time and effort, allowing workers to feel like they are doing a good job – coping with a few risks may even provide a perverse sense of achievement.
Effective training depends on planning
Training is often viewed as being expensive, but ineffective training is a total waste of resources. It is absolutely vital, therefore, that the training process should be planned and executed effectively in order to justify the investment and ensure that worthwhile outcomes can be both seen and measured.
Effective training starts with the identification of specific measurable objectives and should be designed to meet the needs of the work task, the trainee and the organisation in order to help them conduct their business in an altogether safer, more effective manner.
Training objectives should aim to fulfil specific needs and are best identified from task specific risk assessments, reference to existing gas systems operating procedures, and also the observations of line supervisors and management.
Needs are identified by comparing workers current levels of skill and knowledge with the levels required in order to perform their tasks safely, efficiently and effectively. This process is called a ‘training needs gap analysis’ and not only identifies the individuals that require training, but also indicates the topics that need to be included in the training programme whether their attitudes are compatible, and any specific issues for the individual such as height or physical disability.
One of the most commonly identified skill deficiencies is the ability to identify potential hazards. Gas safety training is a means of communicating new knowledge and skills; and is an essential component of the effort applied by the industry to continually raise awareness of potential hazards. Training provides delegates with an opportunity to explore their existing knowledge base and level of skills.
It is vitally important that post-training evaluation be applied to determine the extent to which agreed training objectives have been met. The evaluation process should ascertain the level of knowledge and skills gained by participants and indicate suitable timescales for refresher training.
Supervisors and management need to play key supporting roles to ensure that the learning is incorporated into gas specific operations, to revise and amend operating procedures and risk assessments.
Where available, professional training advisors can be employed to produce a training plan and agenda to meet an organisation’s indentified training needs, and ensure this fits in with their operational timescales and budget constraints.
Procedures and compliance
The major gas companies have almost universally implemented quality assurance and safety systems that follow ISO standard or other similar principles and considerable thought and effort has been invested in writing procedures and work instructions.
The value realised from this effort depends critically on the level of compliance demonstrated by workers in these organisations. The twin maxims that underpin these systems are to prevent the existence of unsafe conditions and to prevent the carrying out of unsafe acts.
The obvious benefit of effective training is that compliance with procedures will depend not merely on discipline and supervision, but rather on an adequate understanding of the risks, standards and safe work practices.
Labelling and colour coding of gas cylinders, as well as pipelines, valves, gas outlet ports, pressure gauges and all operational controls is of vital importance especially in circumstances where compliance to work instructions is reliant on the ability of workers to correctly identify cylinder types, filling manifolds or other equipment.
Unfortunately in many countries communication difficulties caused by language differences and illiteracy compound these difficulties. For example, if you have a different mother tongue to the language of the business in any country or region, it is likely that written work instructions may be of little practical value and learning may depend more on the word-of-mouth instructions approach.
In Indonesia, for example, a total of 189 incidents of LPG gas cylinders exploding were reported between 2008 and 2010. The community has suffered countless loss of property and dozens of burns and other injuries, to the detriment that now, in their minds, the LPG cooker has been transformed from a convenience into a time-bomb. A major cause identified for this situation is that guidance from the authorities is often issued in a language that is too complicated and therefore difficult for users to understand.
Behavioural-based safety programmes
The management of industrial safety has evolved from depending initially on improvement in technology platforms, followed by an emphasis on management leadership and now, the recent experience of organisations with proactive safety programmes is that a fresh approach is needed to continue the performance improvement trends established over the past two decades.
Hence the rise of Behavioural Based Safety (BBS) programmes, otherwise known as Human Factors. These recognise the simple fact that people make decisions, have opinions and phobias, are stubborn or are biased in some way, and therefore make mistakes.
This methodology tries to identify the barriers that individuals create and by discussion and agreement, remove them. Combining a programme of peer-to-peer observation of work activities with discussion and the application of peer pressure, BBS programs try to bring about a change in a worker’s attitude, behaviour and ultimately the organisation’s culture.
The most often stated cause of incidents is frequently ‘human error’ of operators or maintenance personnel, but management and organisational factors have a large influence on accidents and incidents, either directly or through their impact on the behaviours of employees.
The commonly held belief that incidents and accidents are the result of a ‘human error’ by front line workers and therefore beyond the control of management is no longer acceptable to society as a whole.
Human factors are now viewed as a distinct element which must be recognised, assessed and managed effectively in order to control risks. There is a danger that behavioural programmes may draw resources and attention away from process safety issues and it is recommended that organisations embarking on behavioural programmes should retain a balanced approach between personal safety and major accident safety.