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Pandemic stress drives digital safety transition

April 23, 2021
Faisal Khan and Stewart Behie of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center trace the global effects of COVID-19 on process safety, and how digital can assist users worldwide
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Just as the depth and breadth of responses to COVID-19 varies from community to community depending on how it impacts them, Faisal Khan, incoming director of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center (MKOPSC) at Texas A&M University's Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), reports that different regions and industries are adapting their process safety strategies as it spreads and evolves.

"Some process industries were relatively well-prepared for the pandemic and managed well, while others were less prepared and haven't managed as well," says Khan. “Most of the chemical facilities in developed regions were able to continue operating in safe modes, but reduced staffing in control rooms due to COVID-19 reportedly contributed to two major chemical incidents in India." The first incident was a styrene gas leak early on May 7 at the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam, Andra Pradesh, which reportedly killed at least 11 people and sickened hundreds more. The leak from two 5,000-tonne tanks reportedly happened as staff were preparing to restart the plant after COVID-19 restrictions were eased. The second incident was an explosion on June 11 in a vessel at the Hemani Industries agricultural chemicals plant in Ankleshwar, Gujarat, which killed at least eight people and injured 50.

Safety software toolbox

Recent efforts to improve process safety documentation and modeling have resulted in a variety of software solutions. Some of the most notable include:

  • aeShield safety lifecycle management software makes it easier for non-safety staff to interpret risk from reports; simplifies safety integrity level (SIL) calculations; ensures compliance with IEC 61511/ISA 84 standards; and enables compliance documents to support routine operations.
  • AssetCare software from mCloud simplifies operations and maintenance of process assets by using artificial intelligence, analytics, 3D digital twins and advanced sensing to help users simplify and make sense of asset data. This lets them predict asset failures before they happen, plan and manage facility changes, and manage fugitive emissions. 
  • Indiss Plus dynamic simulation software from Corys is based on chemical engineering first principles, and matches process behavior at normal operations or during transient periods, whether the models are part of a dynamic study or incorporated into an operator training simulator (OTS). Its hydrocarbon simulations and platforms are used in oil and gas production, natural gas processing and liquid natural gas (LNG), refining, petrochemical and chemicals, fertilizers, and water and utilities applications.
  • Safety Lifecycle Management (SLM) software from Mangan Software consists of interconnected application modules that cover process and functional safety lifecycles. It has tools for risk assessments, HazOp and LOPA management, instrumented, non-instrumented and relief systems for independent protection layers (IPL), safety instrumented system (SIS) design, operations and maintenance, and SIL verification.
  • PHA-Pro software from Sphera Solutions reports that it makes risk assessments (RA) proactive instead of reactive by providing a framework, configurable methodologies and RA workflows that let users standardize and record risk assessment data and make sure they have sufficient controls. Sphera recently acquired Petrotechnics to enhance its end-to-end, operational risk management software.
  • RiskPoynt software integrates real-time telemetry from assets to help users manage operational risks. It translates complex RAs for each safety barrier into visual displays that are easy to interpret and act on at all organizational levels.

"In North America and the chemical sector, some groups of companies were able to reduce production due to the pandemic, but others provide more essential services, and had to implement rigorous protections to keep operating, while limiting the potential spread of infection. Similar to other industries, this has meant a lot changeover to virtual and remote work, and an added burden for the few who have to remain onsite," says Stewart Behie, interim director at MKOPSC and chemical engineering professor at TAMU. "COVID-19 has also required enhanced communications by everyone. Before the pandemic, many staffs didn't talk as often, but many more are now talking weekly and daily to avoid miscommunication. This is apparently enabling many process applications to run more effectively and safely, and substantially reducing incident rates.

"Of course, this heightened vigilance can't be sustained, so now the challenge is how to take the new techniques and tools we've acquired lately, and use them to improve operations and safety in the future. These tools include maintaining the digital infrastructure including cameras and videos that remote experts need to interact with staffers in the field, and extracting useful intelligence from the increasing volumes of data coming in. This is particularly necessary because the deep freeze in the southern U.S. in the second week of February had an even more negative impact than COVID-19 on the utilities in Texas and its essential industries."

Khan and Behie report that MKOPSC focuses on layers and depths of protection, and helping users maintain safety for their personnel and processes, especially as COVID-19 variants mutate and cybersecurity threats evolve. "Learning and maintaining skills is crucial, but they must be accompanied by a safety plan, especially for startups and shutdowns," adds Behie. "And, during a pandemic or utilities outage, these plans need to add business continuity and look at a wider range of what-ifs to prepare for the next incident. Users need to ask 'what can bring my plant to its knees?,' and look at all the possible scenarios."

Further spreading digitalization 

Beyond using software and cameras, MKOPSC's Behie reports users are adopting digitalized devices in other applications to improve operations and process safety.

"Electronic work permits can be gathered, organized and accessed to avoid conflicts and minimize errors. They can also add video to help users better execute jobs," says Behie. "Some developers are even developing models that take all of an application's critical equipment data and marry it with their work order systems, so they can evaluate everything together for greater efficiency and safety. For example, we're trying to help Sphera Solutions and RiskPoynt develop less costly ways to deploy these tools in smaller applications and plants.

"These solutions let users know what instruments and pieces of kit they have out there, and whether their software, certificates, inspections and maintenance is updated or not. If operators and managers know what they've got down to the device level, they can better understand what's likely to happen to their assets in real-time, identify weak signals, and respond more effectively. These digitalized capabilities improve safety by giving users more situational awareness. When previously manual data gathering and analysis goes digital, users can pull it up on handheld devices, check hazards, and issue don't work authority orders more efficiently than they're paper counterparts. They can also perform step-by-step, virtual walkthroughs and RAs, and clear up issues that were unclear."

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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