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Hydrogen Professionals, Don’t Shy Away from Open Dialogues on Safety

The hydrogen industry's rapid expansion, with over 200 large-scale projects announced by early 2021, exceeding $300 billion in value, signals a significant shift across various sectors, previously led by a few key players, now encompassing a diverse range of businesses and applications.

This article was first published in H2 View.

By Annemarie Purmer, Hydrogen Process Safety Manager at Shell, and Linda Febvre, Hydrogen HSE Manager at ENGIE, Hydrogen Council members

The speed at which the industry and awareness of hydrogen are growing today is unprecedented. As of early 2021, over 200 large-scale projects have been announced across the value chain, with a total value exceeding $300 billion[1], which requires a big step change in the sector. A space that was previously limited to a few key frontrunners, now includes businesses ranging from start-ups and innovative SMEs to large multinationals, and developing a range of applications, such as long-haul trucking, shipping, aviation, steel and chemicals.

As a result, many of us working in the hydrogen industry today come from diverse professions and sectors, with different risk tolerance and levels of safety awareness and expertise. That diversity creates value in many ways, but it also emphasises the importance of fostering a strong safety culture, where all members of staff are aware of the challenges and are proactively working towards the goal of developing the hydrogen industry safely. In the energy and hydrogen business, we know we live with the responsibility to manage risk.

As with all energy, industrial and transport industries, risk assessments, safety studies, and standards are key to developing inherently safe designs. Organisations with a long track record of offering safety training and guidance, such as the Center for Hydrogen Safety and HySafe, provide the industry with a solid basis to guarantee a maximum level of safety. Within the Hydrogen Council, industry players come together in a dedicated working group to conduct mappings of safety gaps to be addressed and to advocate for further standardisation.

However, although standards and guidelines are essential, they do not detract from the necessary requirement for a robust safety culture. It is only through developing the right beliefs, attitudes and behaviours by all individuals involved in the hydrogen industry that we can ensure rigorous safety systems are implemented. Building a collective approach and fostering a safety culture is all the more essential today, with the public eye fixed firmly on the rapidly growing hydrogen sector. Any incident could potentially set back the entire industry. That is why we need to do it right and we need to do it safely.

“Doing it safely” is therefore a collective responsibility, and each of us, regardless of whether we are a nominated safety professional or not, need to ensure that safety is always at the forefront of the way we think and work. The industry today can pride itself on operating according to a risk-assessed approach – often going beyond what is required by legislation, taking into account all risk influencing factors throughout a project’s life cycle. As the space expands, there will be a need to continue to fine-tune and improve that approach, but also to increasingly engage colleagues with non-technical backgrounds. It is up to everyone in every position to ensure that there is no priority higher than safety.

Safety dialogues are one of the many tools to promote a safety culture and to demonstrate safety leadership from the top. Non-safety professionals often tend to shy away from such engagement as they do not feel that they have the right competencies. These two safety professionals would like to debunk that myth: everyone can undertake a safety dialogue, because everyone is capable of asking another individual a few simple open questions, such as “How do you think the organisation can improve the safety of you and your colleagues?” or “How do you think safety is incorporated into your work scope?”

These are simple questions, but the responses often offer valuable insights, provided that individuals feel safe to respond truthfully. This brings us on to the next element of enhancing safety in an organisation: individuals need to feel psychologically safe to challenge the status quo, question decisions, and to express their views on what they think is wrong and suggest ways of improvement without fear of retribution.

Lastly, we invite everyone working in the hydrogen business to engage externally – with regulators, international bodies such as the Hydrogen Council, and with each other – whether you are an operator, contractor or supplier. To develop the hydrogen industry expeditiously but safely, consultation and collaboration are key.

In conclusion, some of you might consider industrial safety as the HSE (Health, Safety & Environment) person’s job, and think that it is just a question of following a set of standards that can be checked off on a list. In reality, it is a continuously improving discipline that requires enhanced collaboration, awareness and dialogue to sustain a steep learning curve. We count on safety professionals to bring the systems, standards, metrics and tools to ensure safety, but we also count on everyone within their own roles to take up those tools and use them every day as a core part of their jobs.

Whether you are a business developer, HR officer or project manager – you have a contribution to make to your company’s safety culture. As such, the HSE person in your organisation is a business partner with whom you can cooperate as you would with any other colleague. If you are unsure where to start, just take a moment today to ask a (non-HSE) co-worker what they know about hydrogen safety and learn from each other. If we all take on that challenge, we can trigger inclusive safety conversations that involve all stakeholders along the value chain.


[1] Hydrogen Insights 2021, Hydrogen Council, February 2021

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