When I talk about my experience as a technical safety engineer, I get some responses which suggest misconceptions and confusion of technical safety engineering with occupational health and safety. While there is an overlap between the two disciplines, my aim in this post is to clarify the differences. I came across a blogpost on the IChemE website that was quite useful in putting together this post.
Technical safety engineering cuts across many engineering disciplines, however chemical process safety is a prominent safety engineering discipline. According to the Centre for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS), process safety is defined as “a disciplined framework for managing the integrity of operating systems and processes handling hazardous substances by applying good design principles, engineering, and operating practices“. Hence technical safety is concerned with the risks associated with engineering processes and systems and the human, environmental and commercial impacts of such risks. On the other hand, occupational safety deals with the risks and hazards that we could be exposed to, while carrying out our job tasks.
Now that we have established definitions for both terms, what differences actually exist between technical safety and occupational safety?
- Process safety includes the prevention of unintentional releases of chemicals, energy or other hazardous materials; whereas occupational safety generally refers to classic health and safety, normally associated with the prevention of trips, slips and falls.
- Process safety incidents tend happen at a lower frequency than occupational safety incidents. For example, there tends to be more occurrences of slips, trips, falls, cuts etc than explosions or train collisions.
- Process safety protects workers and the public alike; occupational safety tends to focus on workers and their safety while carrying out their workplace activities.
- Process safety considers the consequences of accidents at the personal, environmental and business level; occupational safety considers consequences primarily at a personal and worker group level.
- Process safety focuses on changing system design in which behaviour occurs rather than bringing in new equipment; occupational safety focusing on changing an individual’s behaviour.
- Process safety addresses major hazards that are more likely to result in major incidents with big consequences; occupational safety addresses incidents involving personal safety at an individual level with personal consequences. Process safety deals with mitigating big incidents such as fire, explosions, pollution etc, whereas technical safety mitigates personal incidents such as cuts and broken bones.
The points above should give greater clarity on the distinction between technical safety and occupational safety. Both safety functions are important for the safe running of engineering systems and process and should be discussed at all levels of team and board management.