Uncertain safety

Users seeking appropriate process safety systems aren’t getting enough help from unspecific standards and ideal-world certifications. Here’s how to gain useful safety capabilities in a buyer-beware world.

By Jim Montague

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By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Andy Duncan really hates delivering bad news. In fact, he dislikes it almost as much as the day he had to crawl inside a thermo-forming machine to search for parts of a co-worker’s hand that had been pulled off by the machine’s chain. Duncan says the accident happened about 25 years ago at a polystyrene extraction facility where he worked.

“These days, whenever I start hiring and training people at a new facility, I tell them that the absolute last thing I ever want to do is to have to call their family and say their dad or mom isn’t coming home,” says Duncan, who is now site manager at Bigler Terminals LP in Pasadena, Texas. “However, managing people is harder than managing equipment because people can change because of what’s happening to them outside their jobs. No one intends to harm themselves or their coworkers on purpose, but accidents and injuries happen because of a lack of knowledge or thought. Increasing throughput is always an outlying reason because people will put themselves in danger to get a job done and do what their managers ask of them.”

  BP Texas City

Damage resulting from the March 2005 explosion in an isomerization unit at BP Texas City, which killed 15 people and injured 170 others.

Bigler Terminals is a 50-tank terminaling facility that just opened in January 2007. A division of Bigler LP, it was previously BP’s chemical production facility in Pasadena.

“Before we could open our doors this past January, our first order of business was to develop specific operating procedures, a process safety management (PSM) plan, a hazardous operations (hazop) plan that complies with IEC 61511 and ISA S84 standards, and a management-of-change plan to document and review any changes or deviations, and file them with the PSM,” says Duncan. “We have a team that shares as much safety knowledge as it can. Developing our PSM and hazop plans was a team effort.” 

Renovating the facility from production to storage required Bigler to remove smaller lines and install two larger transfer lines. In fact, as it brings new lines and tanks into its operation as business grows, Duncan says his company must do a hazop plan for each new component to evaluate its safety and show how it will fit into the overall facility and safety plan.

Neglecting History
Unfortunately, while most, if not all, process facilities have some kind of well-documented safety plan and ostensibly follow good engineering practices, some safety measures reportedly become outdated, neglected and/or bypassed in favor of maintaining 24/7 availability, uptime and production. For a few facilities, these lapses lead to trips, downtime, accidents and occasional catastrophes, such as the BP Texas City explosion in March 2005 that killed 15 and injured 170. 

This tragedy caused the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to fine BP more than $21 million for safety violations, and reportedly forced the company to set aside $1.6 billion to pay more than 1,500 legal claims and promise to spend more than another $1 billion to upgrade its U.S. facilities.

The BP Texas City incident is just the latest in a series of well-known disasters, which typically result in litigation, occasional legislation and some increased regulatory enforcement. For example, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board recently called on OSHA to increase its oversight of the U.S. refining industry.

“Texas City was a big wake up call,”  says Bud Adler, business development director for AE Solutions, a system integrator in Greenville, S.C. “BP is demanding S84 compliance and setting very aggressive timetables because it doesn’t want to be embarrassed again, and everyone else is saying they don’t want it to happen to them either.”   

This overall unease and uncertainty is reflected in the results of a 114-reader survey Control conducted earlier this year (see sidebar below). This poll revealed that 58% of respondents believe their company’s safety instrumented systems (SIS) are not up to date or complete, and that 57% use ISA S84’s grandfather clause to continue using older systems.

“We have five refineries near us, and they’ve got a lot of safety-related improvement projects, but there aren’t enough outfits to help meet their all their different demands,” says Alan Klingelhafer, automation engineering manager at Bay-Tec Engineering Inc. in Napa, Calif., a CSIA-certified system integrator. He adds that drugmakers’ use of flammable solvents and alcohol for sanitizing can make them just as dangerous as oil and gas applications. Food and beverage makers’ increasing use of ammonia also requires detection, monitoring and alarming devices.  

“Process safety in many companies has suffered significantly from cost cutting and resource reductions over the last 10 years,” says Angela Summers, Ph.D., PE, president of Sis-Tech Solutions LLC, a process safety consulting firm in Houston, Texas. “I’m afraid that the incidents we’re seeing now are only the tip of the iceberg.

“Common sense is lost when it isn’t handed down by senior engineers mentoring young engineers,” Summers says. “Documented internal practices must be periodically updated to reflect current practices, and good engineering practices need to be published,” she continues. “In addition, changes in operability, functionality, reliability or maintainability expectations may require implementation of more rigorous design or management practices. Also, proof test, failure investigation, alarm, trip and audit reports may indicate the need for improvement, and users must continuously monitor existing system performance so gaps in common sense are closed.”

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