Change in regulating onshore major hazards in the UK

Published:  22 March, 2010

After 10 years of operating the COMAH regime (Control of Major Accident Hazard regulations) the COMAH Competent Authority* (CA) is about to introduce a series of changes during April. The changes follow a fundamental review that started in 2008, on the CA’s approach to regulating onshore major hazards in the UK. So what do the changes actually mean? Industrial Fire Journal places under the spotlight Gordon MacDonald, Director Hazardous Installations Directorate, Health and Safety Executive.

How will the changes affect those responsible for safety and emergency response at COMAH sites?

In general, assessment of safety reports will be more efficient, and Competent Authority (CA) feedback will be provided more rapidly. Resource saved from assessment will be moved to site intervention and verification, so over time COMAH site operators will see inspections focused on the critical control and mitigation measures, including emergency response plans and procedures (which are a priority topic for the CA next year).


What will enhanced monitoring mean for COMAH sites, its H&S personnel, and (if applicable) private/municipal emergency responders?

The remodelled regime will enable improved monitoring because both the COMAH establishment operator and the COMAH Competent Authority will have greater confidence that there will be closer alignment between planned and delivered COMAH inspection work (due to a more closely focused and targeted approach to inspection together with improved scheduling and planning). This should help the CA to monitor progress more effectively against the inspection plans and operator actions arising from those inspections. It should also facilitate the CA and site management/health and safety professionals’ plan for the interventions in a more efficient and effective manner.

The review is described as ‘fundamental’ – in what way is this the case?

The COMAH Remodelling Programme began in 2008, with the task of looking at all aspects of the COMAH regime. Its primary role was to provide assurance that COMAH regulators were adopting the right approaches to deliver their regulatory objectives; making the best use of available resources; and acting as fully joined up co-regulators.

The programme was also charged with identifying improvements, recommending a new approach and providing drive to the changes. It represented an opportunity for the CA to modernise the regulatory regime and take account of the operational experience gained since the Regulations were first introduced.


What has been the feedback from industry that has led to the regulatory changes?

Alongside its statutory regulatory functions – the CA meets regularly with industry representatives and trade associations; working to facilitate co-operation across the sector and agree common standards for similar activities, such as the Process Safety Leadership Group’s recent guidance - Safety and environmental standards at fuel storage depots.

Maintaining this constructive dialogue with industry and ensuring that they remain engaged with the Remodelling Programme has been a priority.

Ongoing discussions and recent stakeholder events indicate that industry is supportive of the wider Remodelling Programme’s aims, such as greater visibility of CA Inspectors onsite – something that industry has identified as the most effective way to secure compliance.

As the changes begin to take effect, the CA will continue to listen and actively seek feedback on the industry's view of the remodelling changes.


How will COMAH CA fund the changes ie the increased on-the-ground inspectors?

The changes will shorten desk-based assessment processes for revised safety reports. Instead, CA Inspectors will verify safety report information onsite.  The outcome will be to rebalance resources in favour of inspection, increasing the number of 'inspections'.


What do the changes mean for industry’s ‘poor performers’?

The changes will introduce a new method for rating duty holders’ performance against key topics identified as being a local priority or applicable national priorities. The CA will use performance information to set its priorities and target its resources at areas of concern.


In hindsight, would these changes have prevented major incidents such as Buncefield?

This matter is sub judice and we cannot speculate on it.

I've alluded to the launch of its publication, above, but it might be worth mentioning the Process Safety Leadership Group (PSLG), which was set up as a joint industry and regulators group, in September 2007 to drive forward high standards in process safety leadership and to complete the implementation of the Buncefield Major Incident Investigation Board's recommendations. In December 2009 the PSLG published a report that specifies minimum standards of safety and environmental protection for all UK sites storing large volumes of gasoline.


Where do the latest changes place the UK in comparison to the rest of Europe as regards implementation of SEVESO II?

All EU Member States must meet the requirements of Seveso II but how they achieve this and adopt the provisions into domestic legislation will vary across all of them. It is therefore difficult to compare them. Some countries follow a ‘risk based’ approach, like GB, and the Netherlands, while others apply a ‘consequence based’ approach – as in Germany.



*The CA consists of three organisations the Health Safety Executive (HSE), the Environment Agency (EA - for England and Wales) and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). These three organisations are responsible for the enforcement of the Control of Major Accident Hazard (COMAH) Regulations. The Competent Authority Strategic Management Group (CASMG) is responsible for setting a strategic direction and plan of work for the CA as a whole. Importantly CASMG is responsible for reporting back publicly on progress both in the UK and to the European Union.

  • Operation Florian

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