A Reliable Plant Is a Safe Plant

Alan RossCorporate Alliance Corner, Spring 2020 CAP Corner

If you ask anyone in a plant environment who is responsible for safety, the answer will almost always be “Everyone.” If you ask the same question about reliability, however, the response is quite different. You’ll see finger pointing, uncertainty, and an alarmingly consistent response of “Someone else.”

This needs to change. The answer needs to be as clear for reliability as it is for safety: “Everyone.”

Why must everyone take ownership of reliability? Because we have been able to prove that a reliable plant is a safe plant. A reliable plant is also a highly maintained plant with lower maintenance costs. A reliable plant is also a productive plant. No matter which way you look at it, reliability matters, and it positively impacts every major key performance indicator (KPI) — none more so than safety.

Unreliable industrial plants can be dangerous places for maintenance and testing workers. Terrence O’Hanlon, CEO of ReliabilityWeb, offered a statistic during a presentation at the Electric Power Reliability Summit in May 2018: The number of deaths of maintenance and testing workers in the US is almost 10 times greater than the number of deaths of first responders such as police officers and firefighters.

This statistic should alarm the NETA professional who works in dangerous environments. First responders are men and women who have signed up for an inherently dangerous assignment and who will willingly run into unsafe situations. Thank goodness for them and their courage. The testing technician or the maintenance technician, however, did not sign up for that kind of risk. These techs are part of the makeup of a reliable system, with the NETA professional in the high-risk category, especially when it comes to electrical system testing. 

If we make reliability a major function of everyone’s role and responsibility, we enhance the safety of that plant or system. NETA can play a more significant role in the reliability of electrical assets, thereby increasing safety. I am not, of course, proposing that we downgrade the emphasis on safety. Quite the contrary; we should increase that emphasis by tying it to the reliability of the assets and systems we manage.


Disaster Happens

Two familiar and tragic examples of facilities that were not well maintained (and were certainly not considered highly reliable) are plants that were, ironically, in the process of receiving safety awards. First, a blowout of a wellhead on British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling unit in 2010 resulted in the death of 11 people, with 17 more injured. A second explosion at BP’s Texas City Refinery complex resulted in the deaths of 25 workers and injured 180 more. Texas City Refinery was celebrating a safety award the day of their disaster, and on the day of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, two vice presidents were on the platform presenting a safety award.

These two large-scale and highly publicized disasters demonstrate, through tragedy and irony, that the reliability of a facility must become everyone’s responsibility if we are to really preach safety. I’m sure many smaller incidents never become public knowledge.

The Safety-Reliability Mindset

Let’s take a more positive look at the correlation between reliability and safety and consider what is required for a safety-reliability mindset. This mindset will require that we:

  • Install reliability policies that mirror safety policies and ensure they are enforced. Policies are only as good as the adherence or accountability system we put in place to see they are followed.
  • Secure executive sponsorship to make reliability a corporate priority. When you look at the most effective change-management approaches — top-down, bottom-up, or mid-level management initiated — it is clear that the implementation of a safety culture is a top-down approach. Expect the same requirement for reliability. It must be sponsored at the executive level, as high as the CEO if possible. The entire company must get behind it. It will not succeed if it is a bottom-up or mid-level management initiative.
  • Pull reliability out of the maintenance mindset. Reliability is to maintenance what safety is to personal protective equipment (PPE). Safety includes PPE. Reliability will include maintenance, not the other way around.
  • Anticipate resistance to change. Even with executive sponsorship, this reliability initiative will be hard. It involves hard-wired ways of doing things. It involves people who do not see the need or potential gain from change, and it requires a significant reallocation of resources.

Make It Worthwhile

How do we know adopting this mindset is worthwhile? We first must decide how we will measure reliability. Two asset measurements are typically used:

  • Asset utilization (AU) is the percentage of time an asset is actually utilized over the course of a year. The maximum number of hours in a year that an asset can be utilized is 8,760 (with more, of course, for leap years). AU is considered an excellent metric for the reliability of a plant.
  • Overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) also measures reliability by using planned production time as the base to determine how much of that planned production is actually utilized.

There is a direct correlation between a high AU or OEE score and reduced safety incidents. Ron Moore, one of the founders of the reliability movement, surveyed several companies for more than four years. At the facilities he surveyed, plants that showed the highest AU or OEE were also the safest. Safety, however, was not the only benefit. They were also the most productive, the least costly to maintain, and had the fewest environmental incidents when compared to facilities with lower AU or OEE scores.

With all those positives in favor of reliability, how can it not be everyone’s responsibility?

Reliability Leadership

So who should take the lead on this effort? We know a safety manager cannot make the plant safe. He or she supports that endeavor with tools, training, and facilitation, and reinforces it with metrics. Likewise, a reliability leader cannot make the plant reliable. He or she also supports that endeavor with tools, training, facilitation, and metrics. And therein lies the problem: We don’t really have all the tools, training, facilitation, and reinforcement metrics in place when it comes to reliability.

If we get executive sponsorship, we can create reliability councils — modeled on safety councils — that include a broad section of the plant or facility personnel together to work on it. Professional reliability organizations like the Society of Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP), ReliabilityWeb, and the International Maintenance Conference (IMC) have developed great tools and support for these types of initiatives — but it all starts with executive sponsorship.

Solid reliability practices can lead to safer conditions. Conversely, poor reliability practices can lead to much more unsafe conditions. For example, a recently updated NFPA 70E regulation on arc flash safety brought conflicting and often confusing information on when it is safe to test cabinet transformers. One company concluded that cabinet transformers should never be chemically or electrically tested under any conditions. That better-safe-than-sorry mindset might sound reasonable, but failing to test equipment can only lead to decreased reliability and, ultimately, decreased safety.

Make a Difference by Making It Matter

Organizational commitment to reliability can have a secondary positive impact. Stephen R. Covey, author of The 8th Habit, referred to a Harris Interactive Research study that cited the following insights into employee engagement:

  • 37% of employees had a clear understanding of what the organization was trying to achieve.
  • 20% were enthusiastic about organizational goals.
  • 20% saw a clear connection between their tasks and organizational goals.
  • 15% felt the organization enabled them to achieve their goals.
  • 15% felt they were in a high-trust environment.
  • 10% felt their organization held people accountable.
  • 13% felt there were high-trust, highly cooperative working relationships with other groups or departments.

If implemented as just another flavor-of-the-month by executives, any reliability initiative will just add to these terrible outcomes. But by attaching reliability to safety, we might be able to improve the results. Why? Safety is ultimately about individual behaviors and attitudes. When any employee makes the connection between what they do and how it aligns with the goals of the organization, we can create a lot of energy and excitement. This is what is needed for a reliability-safety initiative.

OSHA and All Others

Recently, the Society of Maintenance & Reliability Professionals (SMRP) was announced as a new OSHA Alliance Partner, which is a significant event for both organizations. The strategic initiatives of that Alliance — beginning the integration of reliability and maintenance best practices and the body of knowledge (BoK) — are being re-examined from an OSHA perspective. NETA can also play a role in that partnership as we continue to understand how safety and reliability can work together.

What will it take to create an organizational excellence strategy for the integration of safety and reliability? Let’s consider that safety has specific standards and requirements for reporting. OSHA and state safety organizations have brought much clarity to safety reporting. There are specific requirements/programs for operational excellence, such as Lean, Six Sigma, et al.

We should require a program for zero unplanned downtime (ZUD) and/or reliability best practices to eliminate reactive work. Doing so might reduce (or even eliminate) many unsafe practices. Tying uptime to safety must be measurable or observable. Unplanned outages due to electrical system failures are a major subset of creating the program for ZUD. NETA can and should be a major participant in this effort. A unique summit, the 2018 Electric Power Reliability Summit, addressed the issue of creating that set of best practices. The 2019 Summit, hosted by the University of Texas at Austin, will continue to explore the issue and will play a significant role in building these electrical reliability best practices. 

Drivers for Change

If we were to create the drivers for safety/reliability integration, what would they look like? They might include:

  • Executive sponsorship. I cannot express it enough. It must come from the top.
  • Bottom-up ownership. The mindset must be embraced by every employee, just as safety has been and continues to be. By tying reliability to safety, we have a better chance of creating real commitment.
  • Planning. Develop effective plans and processes for implementation and commit the resources to see these plans through. Reliability councils work, but staff must be given the time and resources to work on them to be effective. Mid-level managers and supervisers cannot subvert this process in the name of short-term goals and expediency.
  • Communication. Initiate cascading and repeated communication. Say it and say it over and over.
  • Goal setting. Measure effectiveness using AU and OEE. Maximizing the return on assets (ROA) gets the attention of the C-suite. Reliability maximizes the ROA. Measure and track it.
  • Auditing and reporting. To ensure accountability, we must audit reliability in the same way we audit safety. Reducing planned production to increase the OEE is gaming the system, and it has happened. For perspective, the AU score is very valuable because it considers all the assets, not just the ones we plan production on.
  • Commitment. Success requires a commitment to resources in the beginning without immediate payback. In the long run, it will bring more safety, more productivity, lower cost, and a greater sense of commitment from all staff. Under-resourced, it will create frustration and backfire.
  • Failure analysis. Focus on repeated failures and create a root cause analysis program. Start at the easiest place to make an impact. Identify repeated failures and address the low-hanging fruit.
  • Make it your culture — your way of life. Safety has become a way of life in most organizations. Reliability must become one. If it is part of the culture, it is simpler for everyone in the organization to get behind.


When asked, “Who is responsible for safety?” most employees at production facilities answer, “Everyone.” Let’s ensure that’s the same answer when we ask, “Who is responsible for reliability?” A reliable plant is a proven safer plant. A safe plant should be reliable. Every NETA member organization should adopt this idea within their own company and become a strong voice for the integration of safety and reliability in every facility where we work.


Moore, Ron. “Reliable, Safe, Cost Effective,” International Maintenance Conference, Bonita Springs, Florida, December 10, 2018.

O’Hanlon, Terrence. “Framework for Reliability Leadership,” Electric Power Reliability Summit, Houston, Texas, May 16, 2018.

Covey, Stephen R. The 8th Habit, New York: Free Press, 2004.

Alan M. Ross is the Chairman of the Electric Power Reliability Summit (EPRS), which is co-sponsored by SDMyers, LLC. He is also Vice President of Reliability at SDMyers, LLC, where he is responsible for developing and executing long-term reliability strategies and next-generation leadership for all domestic and international operating units. Alan often presents at industry conferences and has authored several trade publication articles on transformer maintenance and reliability, including articles featured in Solutions and Uptime magazines, and is the author of two books: Unconditional Excellence and Beyond World Class. He earned a BS in mechanical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and an MBA in marketing from Georgia State University, graduating Magna cum Laude. Alan is a Certified Reliability Leader and a member of the IEEE Reliability Society.