Can we Talk?

There is some major-league wriggling going on as participants try to avoid simply discussing whether many U.S. oil and gas producers and their supporting industries are doing their best on process safety.

By Jim Montague

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By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Jim Montague, Executive EditorI don’t know much about process safety, but I do know when something stinks. I got my first whiff when I asked U.S.-based sources about process safety for this issue’s “Uncertain Safety” cover story, and a surprisingly large ratio referred me to someone in Germany or elsewhere in Europe. This hadn’t happened when I asked about other control and automation topics, so what was different now?

The fumes grew stronger when I noticed the drumbeat regularity with which U.S. oil and gas facilities seem to have had explosive accidents over the past couple of decades. Though there have been some notable disasters in Europe and elsewhere, only the U.S. appeared to have a chronic series of mishaps. No one seems able to answer the simple question: “Are there more process safety-related accidents in the U.S. or Europe?”

Everyone seems willing to add to an endless litany of rationalizations about why U.S. process applications might have more accidents than counterparts worldwide. These include beliefs that the U.S. has more refining capacity per capita, which might result in more accidents. Another is that more of Europe’s refining is located closer to populated areas, which increases risk calculations, regulations and enforcement. A third is that process safety applications are just too physically different to be compared within facilities or between nations and continents. Or that process safety is better now than it was 25 years ago.

Many of these reasons may be valid, but they don’t answer my initial question. There is some major-league wriggling going on as participants try to avoid simply discussing whether many U.S. oil and gas producers and their supporting industries are doing their best on process safety. The accident parade seems to suggest otherwise.

Dealing with real process safety is like facing the violent, drunken uncle in the living room that no one wants to talk about.

For their part, control and automation experts and end users concentrate obsessively on drafting and revising IEC 61511 and ISA S84 standards, and developing new safety hardware and software certified by TÜV and other organizations. However, S84’s grandfather clause is regularly abused, and it turns out certifications are based on lab reports rather than plant-floor performance. So many end users are again cast adrift to fend for themselves in a buyer-beware jungle by the very suppliers and trade organizations that promised to be such terrific partners.

Even the U.S. government’s response to process safety through the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is mostly enforcement after an accident occurs. I expected that refineries big and small might not want to discuss their process safety efforts, but even OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board declined to be interviewed.

I may be wrong to conclude there are more process accidents in the U.S. compared to Europe, and I’m more than willing to be proven wrong. However, that can’t happen until more folks with really useful plant-floor knowledge are more willing to speak about process safety and be quoted for attribution. Despite worries about potential litigation or other fears, I’d thought many more experienced engineers and other experts would be willing to teach Control’s readers about their process safety efforts and how to make safety better, especially because so many of their colleagues have been killed or injured over the years.

To me, not knowing the historical facts of process safety’s problems, refusing to discuss them openly, and avoiding investment in long-term solutions is a damning indictment. The obvious offenders are those who directly create potentially lethal safety problems, and so Europe-style penalties and Australia’s industrial manslaughter law should be adopted in the U.S. immediately. However, there’s blame left for those who indirectly allow these problems to continue.

Why are 25-year-old U.S. refineries and chemical operating units forced to run at capacity with almost zero downtime for years on end? Why are plant operators pushed to the point that safety becomes an obstacle? It’s partly because of my demand. Indirectly, refiners have no breathing room and process safety is sacrificed, so I can fill up and drive two blocks to the drugstore when I should have walked. If I can still get out of my chair, I’m going back to buses and bicycles.

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