Pipeline incidents: Why they happen and how safety management systems prevent them

When it comes to safety, pipelines and airplanes have a lot in common. Most planes do not crash and most pipelines do not leak, but when either of these events happens, the results are serious.

The priority of the pipeline industries in both Canada and the U.S. is to eliminate these low-frequency, high-risk incidents.

“We need to improve accident rates,” said Linda Daugherty, deputy associate administrator for pipeline safety with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). “Safety management systems take our goals to the next level.”

On Sept. 29, representatives from the U.S. pipeline regulator and Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) took part in a panel at the International Pipeline Conference in Calgary where they discussed the importance of safety management systems in preventing pipeline incidents on both sides of the border.

Why pipeline incidents happen:

In order to understand how to prevent incidents, regulators need to know why they happen.

The NEB uses the “Swiss Cheese” model to explain why major incidents occur.

The "Swiss Cheese" model for accident trajectory developed by psychologist James Reason (Source: NEB).

The “Swiss Cheese” model for accident trajectory developed by psychologist James Reason (Source: NEB).

Basically, the pieces of cheese represent the layers of protection a company uses to prevent an incident (through technical, organizational and people-based controls). A major incident occurs when there are a number of failures (or holes) in the system.

Having a strong safety culture and an effective safety management system helps strengthen these protective layers and prevent holes.

“We have learned a lot from others – the chemical, nuclear, aviation and offshore worlds. We’ve always seen a role for safety management systems (SMS). SMS is, in essence, the engine for continuous improvement,” said Jeff Wiese, associate administrator for pipeline safety with PHMSA.

What is a safety management system?

In Canada, pipeline regulations require companies to have a safety management system in place. A safety management system lays out the process for identifying, preventing and managing holes in a company’s protective layers.

“(It’s a way of) looking holistically at the system and identifying areas that need to be improved. Safety management systems allow us to look at the systemic factors and identify corrective action and future systemic actions,” explained Claudine Bradley, technical leader of safety, operations with the NEB.

The “Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle,” outlined below, demonstrates how safety management systems give operators a tool for constantly evaluating and improving their safety performance.

Plan, Do, Check, Act

Strong safety management systems are an important part of building a safety culture, where everyone in an organization (from the top down) makes safety a top priority.

“Everyone has a role and a responsibility to advance safety culture,” said Bradley.

Regulators across North America believe building pervasive safety cultures and strong safety management systems are key to eliminating pipeline incidents. Next week’s post will explore how industry and individual companies share this belief.

This is the second post in a four-part series based on information shared at the International Pipeline Conference in Calgary from Sept. 29 – Oct. 3. Over 1,400 pipeline professionals from around the world attended the conference.

Read other posts in the series:


The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 115,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2013, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Our members transport 97 per cent of Canada’s daily natural gas and onshore crude oil from producing regions to markets throughout North America.