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Enhancing the Safety Mission of Pipelines Through Third-Party Assessment

Pipelines are vital lifelines for the nation and the economy. Even amid rapid technological change, these key pieces of infrastructure safely and sustainably deliver the fuel and raw materials needed to power everything from the cars we drive to our iPhones.

Given this significant contribution, it is critical for the pipeline industry to continue to provide the safest transportation method available – with 99.99% by volume of products delivered safely – to meet growing energy demands. That’s why the American Petroleum Institute (API) launched its Pipeline Safety Management System (SMS) Third-Party Assessment Program.

With safety being fundamental to the success of the pipeline industry’s core mission of delivering clean and reliable energy to its customers, this third-party assessment program was established to support America’s pipeline companies in achieving their goal of zero incidents. API understands that an efficient SMS is paramount to effective and safe operations and this program was built on that premise.

API’s Pipeline SMS Assessment Program looks to industry best practices to provide operators with insights on safety improvement opportunities across their operations and programs. During a Pipeline SMS Assessment, a team of independent, pipeline safety experts (assessors) spend about a week on-site, working with employees and leadership— across the operator’s business model—to evaluate the health and maturity of the organization’s pipeline SMS.

The assessors identify issues based on the framework outlined by API Recommended Practice (RP) 1173, Pipeline Safety Management Systems – the industry’s accepted standard for developing a safety management system. This industry standard was developed through API’s American National Standards Institute (ANSI) accredited standards development process and the collaborative efforts from industry, regulators, contractors and other subject matter experts.

Under RP 1173, a Pipeline SMS will assist the operator in a number of key ways, including:
  • Identifying and managing risk;
  • Promoting a continuous learning environment to tackle new challenges and improve integrity;
  • Responding appropriately to emergencies;
  • Ensuring adequate training is provided to workers;
  • Proactively informing external stakeholders of important information.
The Third-Party Assessment Program was launched in January 2020 to help verify how well an individual pipeline operator is meeting the requirements of RP 1173, as well as to share good practices and identify areas in which an operator can make program improvements.

Creating the Assessment Program with Industry Participation The Pipeline SMS Assessment Program was designed with input from pipeline operators and multiple industry associations representing nearly all subsegments of the pipeline industry. These organizations included (among others): The American Gas Association (AGA); the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA); and the American Public Gas Association (APGA). API also conducted a pilot process to obtain practical input from operators and assessors to improve the effectiveness of the program.

The industry’s participation was critical to the creation of the assessment program to ensure the program meets the needs of pipeline owners and operators across the segment.

Who Benefits from a Third-Party Assessment

Pipeline SMS Assessments are suitable for all sizes of pipeline operators, including those that ship both petroleum liquids and non-liquid natural gas.

The assessment program is also appropriate for all operators, regardless of an operator’s experience level in implementing their current pipeline SMS. This makes the Pipeline SMS Assessment Program a universal tool for all pipeline operators to help them improve their safety performance.

For operators that are less mature, the program facilitates sharing of good practices to help operators achieve conformance and effectiveness to RP 1173. For more mature operators, assessment teams can help identify ways to make their systems even more effective and continuously improve performance through the use of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.

How the Assessment Works

The Pipeline SMS Assessment Program establishes an effective and efficient process, assigning a team of expert assessors, with an average of 20 years industry experience, to an operator’s facility. Pipeline SMS assessors spend approximately one week on site, conducting interviews and field observations. Pipeline SMS assessors work with a site to schedule meetings with the sites’ subject matter experts (SMEs); additionally, they spend a considerable amount of time on-site, working with operators to determine how procedures and programs are being used and implemented. There are daily de-briefs and a closing conference to review key highlights and opportunities for each element or area assessed.

Assessors use an industry-created Pipeline SMS Maturity Model to help evaluate how well an operator’s pipeline SMS has advanced in each of the 10 elements of RP 1173. For each element, they focus on assessing program, process, and system conformity with RP 1173 across operations and in the field. This approach promotes a robust safety culture and learning from leading industry practices. The model also uses performance indicators that allow for benchmarking based on peer groups.

Five levels of maturity are used to describe an operator’s pipeline SMS conformance:
  • Levels 1-3 indicate “Planning” to “Conforming”;
  • Level 4 indicates “Sustaining”;
  • And Level 5 indicates “Improving.”
Under this evaluation system, both Levels 4 and 5 indicate the degree to which a pipeline SMS has been effectively implemented and is resulting in measurable performance improvement. However, operators which achieve these levels are encouraged to utilize the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle to ensure continuous improvement in performance.

Assessment Results

Following an on-site assessment, an assessment report is developed and provided to the operator. The report includes a collection of notable practices that the operator should be proud of and build upon, as well as a set of observations and opportunities to increase effectiveness within their SMS.

API understands than an effective SMS assessment program supporting pipeline operators better equips industry to meet the demands of today’s burgeoning energy market. Supporting the industry’s goal of zero incidents, API’s Pipeline SMS Third-Party Assessment Program is moving us toward a safe and sustainable future for the environment, workers and their communities, and the public as a whole.

For more information on API’s Pipeline SMS Third-Party Assessment Program, or RP 1173, visit
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