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Industrial Safety Disasters: Not Again-Again and Again

May 5, 2010
More Effective Process Safety Rules Are Good and a Good Investment. Maybe the Weight of Both will Be Enough to Make it Happen
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

How do you get to be an idea whose time has come? You know, like Abraham's monotheism, Buddha's middle way, Moses' 10 commandments, one person one vote, Christ's golden rule, "All men are created equal," smoking causes cancer, women are equal too, global warming is caused by humans, and universal health care is a good idea.

What all these ideas needed to succeed is just a slight mental shift, first by their inventors, and then by the larger community. Likewise, process and machine safety both require this same small shift in perception. In this case, safety is moving from being thought of as a burden and a costly drag on production to becoming a worthwhile investment that can protect life and limb, but also contribute to reducing downtime and generating savings. I keep hearing the term "lean safety" buzzing around lately.

But old habits and prejudices die hard. Safety measures and guards are still shut off, disabled and circumvented all the time, usually so operators can meet unrelenting production demands from their management and indirectly from all of us consumers. This is one of the main reasons why refineries, chemical plants and coal mines keep blowing up.

Wait a second. What? When? (Reporters and editors always ask the same questions, even of each other.) Okay, let's shift gears here a second. So, here I am, writing this column early on Wed., April 20, and Yahoo! News spits out an item that at least 11 workers are missing and 17 injured following an explosion the night before at the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform located 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., near New Orleans. The rig is owned by Transocean Ltd., and is under contract to BP. More details will emerge by the time this is published, but that's what we know now.

Not again always seems to happen again.

As always, our thoughts, prayers and condolences go out to those killed and injured in this tragedy, and to their families and co-workers, and to everyone affected by this latest disaster.

Also, I don't want to seem like a pandering pundit, and so I apologize ahead of time to all those close to these events and others concerned if what I say next seems like I'm not treating these events as seriously and respectfully as they deserve.

Still, from my own selfish little perspective, it would be nice to finish a danged column or story on the topic of safety without another process facility exploding. It's way beyond sad and depressing. I know cubicle-chair commentary has little genuine impact, but if something blows up every time we write about safety, covering it can begin to seem pretty pointless. Plus, it's hard not to wonder if there might be a curse or voodoo at work.

In fact, almost three years ago, I was writing the second of two process safety columns, "Maybe You Didn't Hear Me," for the July 2007 issue of Control, when we learned that contract worker, Richard Liening, was killed at BP's Texas City refinery on June 5.

Now I know some accidents are unavoidable, both in practical and statistical terms, and investigations may show this latest tragedy to be one of these. Small consolation, I know. But, if we could limit disasters to the unavoidable ones, then there would sure be far fewer than now. Everyone knows process safety in the U.S. could and should be way better practiced, regulated and enforced. than it is now.

We need some process safety rules and laws with teeth, and we need then now. Enforcement after the fact is a joke. At long last, the biggest process end users should show a little backbone and help support some European or Australian-style process safety regulations here.

It's just a little mental switch. Whether driven internally or externally, more effective process safety rules are good behavior and a good investment. Maybe the weight of both will be enough to make it happen where simple morality hasn't been enough. Whatever. Just as long as it gets done and the number of accidents and tragedies is reduced.

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