Safety Stories - So What?

Maybe Everyone is Doing a Great Job, and This Seemingly Unending Series of Accidents Is Just Statistics Catching Up With Us

By Jim Montague

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Don't try to cheer me up. Someone foolishly asked me to give a Sept. 26 presentation on process safety at ISA Automation Week 2012 in Orlando, and I even more foolishly agreed. Talk about opening a can of worms in my head. Sheesh. Of course, we've been covering process safety in Control for many years, so my task is to boil down and regurgitate some of our recent coverage and lessons learned. I'm also supposed to present it from a journalist's perspective. The main lesson from my old reporter days is that cops and firefighters appreciate preventive and proactive process safety as much as process engineers. 

However, the best part of this presentation will be that I get to channel—or at least be a ventriloquist's dummy—for our legendary columnist and consultant Béla Lipták, and present a bunch of his excellent solutions for applying complete and thorough control and automation. Because we don't seem to want to take his initial advice and jump into solar with both feet, his recent columns explain that carefully implemented and maintained process controls could have prevented the Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima Daiichi disasters, and can alleviate the potential environmental damage of many "bottom of the barrel" applications such as fracking and ultra-deep offshore and Artic drilling. Just a little, relatively inexpensive prevention can prevent a world of damage, injury and expense. Forethought and action is always a tall order, but this is still good news.  

So why am I gloomy? Because even during the short time I was pulling together materials for this presentation, some more process facilities exploded and/or caught fire.

One of the most recent accidents was the Aug. 6 fire at Chevron's refinery in Richmond, Calif., which one source just recently told me is a paragon of innovative simulation. No deaths were reported in that incident. The other catastrophe was the huge Aug. 25 explosion and fire in three tanks at the Amuay refinery in Venezuela, which killed 48 people, injured about 84 more, leveled 500 nearby homes and businesses, and took 222 firefighters about four days to extinguish. So far, both incidents have been traced to leaking gas lines, which resulted in huge vapor clouds that ignited.

For several of us here at Control, this was just like the time in 2010 when we were putting together some process safety stories and columns, and we heard about the Deepwater Horizon accident. Sure, we're not affected directly, but it's frustrating and mentally wearing to be covering process safety even as more disasters happen. It's like not being able to finish a sentence about not being able to finish a sentence. 

And, it sort of feels like what good is writing stories and making presentations about process safety going to accomplish? What good has it ever done? We don't get a lot of people telling us about accidents that were prevented.

Still, maybe I'm worrying too much. Maybe everyone is doing a great job, and this continuous, unending series of accidents is just statistics inevitably catching up with the simple fact of running so many inherently volatile process applications. That's a good rationalization, but I'm still suspicious. I'm pretty certain there are many applications, facilities, engineers and managers that can do a lot more to improve their processes and protect the lives of their people and communities.

However, since bad actors don't read preachy columns or attend ISA presentations, how can they be reached out to and encouraged to change? Logically, whoever knows what's right is obligated to go and find them. Like to missionaries and apostles, we just have to be brave and go after them, even if it means upsetting powerful interests, our own organizations or ourselves. Personally, I just have to hope that continuing to nag and annoy readers about process safety does have a positive effect—even if I don't hear about it. As the lyric from the rock band Dada's "Dizz Knee Land" song goes, "I just saw a good man die, now I'm going to dizz knee land. Come on." 

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