Inherently safer industrial technologies for the production, transport, and use of industrial and agricultural chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and both commodity and advanced materials is a vital concept that is currently the focus of significant activity in a wide range of forums in the industrial, academic, and governmental arenas. While many industrial processes and sectors use various definitions of this term, collectively, they capture a group of processes and technologies that improve safety by greatly reducing or eliminating hazards through a permanent and inseparable element of the process. Thus, safety is built into the process, not added on, and hazards are reduced or eliminated, not simply controlled.
Where feasible, inherently safer process technology can greatly reduce potential threats to public and worker safety, health, the environment, and plant and public infrastructure from a variety of scenarios that might result in the release – fugitive or otherwise – of hazardous and toxic materials.
Many organizations involved in the chemical, pharmaceutical, and related process industries have strongly advocated and advanced inherent safety, supporting the work of professional societies and academic institutions, utilizing the concept in training chemists and engineers, and incorporating it into internal process safety management programs.1, 2 Inherent safety is a well-recognized engineering process concept that is based on the belief that a hazard can be moderated or eliminated, thereby reducing risk and possibly removing the risk altogether. Certainly an inherently safer system or technology can make hazardous events less likely and less intense if there is an accident.
Change in “technology” is one aspect of inherent safety. The term inherently safer technology (IST) has received considerable attention in recent years, but it is only one of many approaches that may be employed to achieve risk reduction. A successful approach to changing technology in this area will come about through a holistic application of safety analysis that extends from the top to the bottom of the organization, designing safer systems that include safer practices and an organizational prejudice toward safety. It should also be noted that the safest, most environmentally benign process choice may not be unequivocally identified. As observed in a recent National Academies study, evaluation of different process options “will not always result in a clear, well-defined, and feasible path forward” and may involve consideration of a series of tradeoffs and can change over time. And, while there are tools available to measure the safety of different process alternatives, there is not a clear consensus on the most reliable metrics.3
ACS has consistently supported research and development initiatives that promote advancements in inherent safety and risk reduction. For example, ACS has long been a strong supporter of efforts by Congress to promote green chemistry and engineering.
The federal government has made homeland security, including the protection of the public and critical infrastructure, a priority, and Congress has considered addressing issues surrounding inherently safer technology through legislation on the Department of Homeland Security Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards. To protect the public, the environment, and critical infrastructure, it is necessary to make research, development, and technology investments that would help secure the nation’s chemical infrastructure and safeguard against the consequences of a terrorist attack.
The chemical enterprise has considerable experience in developing and implementing inherently safer systems and should welcome creative approaches for encouraging additional IST research and development. Several recent industry association security codes require member companies to conduct vulnerability assessments of their facilities. These codes recommend consideration of inherently safer and more secure technologies, especially during facility design or redesign.
1 American Chemistry Council Responsible Care® program
2 American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Final Report: Definition for Inherently Safer Technology in Production, Transportation, Storage, and Use, July 2010.
3 National Research Council, "Summary." The Use and Storage of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) at Bayer CropScience, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2012.
4 National Research Council, Terrorism and the Chemical Infrastructure: Protecting People and Reducing Vulnerabilities, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2006.