EN Explains: Intro to SMS

Have you ever wondered how the pieces of a safety management system come together and drive positive change to a safety culture? Or perhaps how a safety management system or quality management system relate? Or how do these systems support existing safety and compliance programs?

One of the benefits of tenure is that you get to reflect on the diversity of knowledge and experience when faced with a new opportunity or challenge and use your past learnings to better understand how to tackle a new situation.

For many of us who have had the experience of a long and diverse career in engineering or operations at multiple utilities or from supporting the industry through significant changes over the last quarter of a century, we’ve been gifted the opportunity to see how our industry works, particularly when it comes to safety, compliance, and quality.

As the industry evolved around pipeline safety and programs such as operator qualification (OQ), integrity management programs, damage prevention, pipeline modernization, and more, our understanding of the interrelated and interdependent nature of these programs–and the systems used to manage them–has evolved. The culmination of this evolution and the opportunity to accelerate and further strengthen these programs is in the development and implementation of a safety management system (SMS).

An SMS is a systematic and deliberate approach to managing the safety of your workforce, assets, and the public. It is focused on identifying and reducing risk, where conversations about risks and risk reduction are intentional at all levels of an organization. All employees and stakeholders are empowered to raise a concern and take action to mitigate the risk while continuously improving processes, procedures, performance, culture, technology, systems, etc.

This is not a program that gets implemented, and you’re done. Implementing an SMS is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes dedication, persistence, and fortitude and needs to be ingrained in your culture so that it becomes how you operate your business.

There are many different standards that define an SMS. The most recent is the recommended practice 1173 developed by the American Petroleum Institute in 2015 that applies to pipeline systems.

Within each of these standards, the components are essentially the same, with some variation at the requirement level that may apply to a specific industry. The key elements are intended to work in concert to drive engagement and accountability while also improving safety.

The engine of a good SMS is the risk management process. Reduction of risk is the intent of an SMS, so why not start with the risk management process? Risk management creates the basis for stakeholder engagement and begins to surface and organize your risks.

To help your stakeholders engage in your risk management process, you’ll need to educate them on what SMS is, what risk is, what risk mitigation means, and what is expected of them as part of the system.

The outcome of the risk management process then creates a need for governance to facilitate decision-making, engaging leadership in deciding what risks will be mitigated and what resources are needed to accomplish it.

This then creates the basis for safety goals and objective setting, which creates additional opportunities to engage your stakeholders in continuous improvement, all of which creates positive tension in your safety culture.

Some may ask, is an SMS only applicable to pipeline operators and gas utilities, as it may be defined by API RP 1173? The answer is no. While there may be certain aspects of an SMS that may be specific to certain programs or asset types, such as a pipeline, the general principles are applicable to any part of the utility business–gas, electric, or power generation–or at any industrial location where the safety of the workforce and assets are paramount.

When you think about the last 20 years of changes to our industry, particularly with the introduction of new pipeline safety or electric reliability compliance rules, we’ve already developed and implemented programs, processes, and procedures that have improved safety, compliance, and quality considerably. However, there is considerable complexity in our processes because of the numerous regulations, the evolution of technology, the changing of the workforce, and increased demand from customers and other stakeholders.

An SMS is hard because it requires continued and ongoing focus over a long period of time. Often a measurable reduction of risk requires multiple cycles of measurement before it is known if the mitigations were effective. All the while, organizations change, people come and go, new processes are introduced, business objectives change, and technology continues to evolve.

The SMS adds another layer of control and complexity to an already complex environment. Thus, it is important that the SMS processes and procedures are efficient in their execution. The system needs to be inclusive of all these other programs without disrupting their intended purpose but, instead, complimenting and creating an opportunity to improve processes. This may affect the organizational structure with which the SMS is owned and implemented, especially ensuring clear accountability for its execution.

EN Engineering has experts experienced in the development, implementation, and ongoing improvement of an SMS and can guide you in developing and implementing yours. We have conducted gap analysis; developed implementation roadmaps; created processes, procedures, forms, and deliverables; facilitated workshops to evaluate risks; created metrics, KPIs, and scorecards; consulted on management reviews and management of change, and have people on staff who have implemented all 10 elements of API RP 1173.

Additionally, EN has skilled and experienced resources to help clients address specific challenges and areas of risk, including data solutions, integrity management, record keeping, asset replacement, system automation and controls, engineering and design, and much more.

For more information on implementing an SMS, please contact Jim Francis at or 713-324-3950.

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