May 31, 2010

PVC pipes fire

A fire occurred in a place in Netaji Nagar, Thirumullaivoyal, Chennai,where PVC pipes were stored in the open. The photo in the paper indicates voluminous clouds of smoke from the fire.Dioxins are produced during a PVC fire and I am not sure if the public and the firefighters were aware about its hazards.
Another article mentions the following about the hazards of a PVC fire:
During 9-12 July, 1997, at least 400 tonnes of PVC were burned in a fire at Plastimet Inc, Hamilton , Ontario ( Canada ). The facility was storing bales of "jet trimmings" from a manufacturer of automobile interiors. Analysis of soot and ash samples after the PVC fire at the plant, revealed levels of dioxin 66 times higher than permitted even for industrial land. This one fire increased the annual dioxin emissions for the whole of Canada by 4 percent in 1997. Residents were advised not to eat local garden produce or allow their children to play on the grass.
Read the article of the fire in this link
Read the article about hazards of dioxins in this link

May 29, 2010

Cell phones - an ignition source?

Today, at a meeting of like minded people, we had an interesting discussion on how the use of a cell phone may be dangerous in a classified area.One of the participants opined that is is static electricity when using a cell phone that develops the spark that could prove to be an ignition source. Whatever the methodology, it is prudent not to use cell phones in a classified area. An incident in a platform in the Gulf of Mexico in 2002 is quoted below:
"A contract panel specialist was working on an open platform master control panel that used supply gas for the instrumentation. The contractor stated he was carrying a cellular phone that was turned on and rang while he was working on the panel. The employee claimed that when he flipped the bottom piece of the cellular phone to answer the call, a flash fire occurred causing second degree burns on his forearms and “sunburn” on his nose and cheeks. At the time National Safety Alert No. 5 was issued, it was believed that the cellular phone may have ignited the flammable gases or vapors in the area of the open platform master control panel when the phone had been flipped open to receive the incoming call.As part of the investigation of this fire, they sent the hand held cellular phone involved in the flash fire to an independent third party testing laboratory.
Although the cellular phones’ battery provided sufficient energy to ignite the test gases during the testing it did not. As a result, it was the opinion of the independent third party testing laboratory that it is unlikely that the cellular phone would have ignited a flammable mixture of methane or propane under actual field conditions and that the cause of the flash fire was something other than the cell phone.
Based on this information and investigation, we were unable to conclusively identify the ignition source of the fire. However, we have not ruled out the possibility that the fire could have been ignited by static electricity, a spark from the metal master control panel door coming into contact with a metal handrail, or a wrench striking metal inside the control panel".

Read more of the article in this link
Read a brochure by Shell in this link

Safeguards and Regulators

The BP oil spill incident has thrown up an interesting fact. While regulators in two major oil-producing countries, Norway and Brazil require acoustic switches to activate an underwater valve that shuts down the well even if the oil rig itself is damaged or evacuated, the US regulators do not require them. Norway has had acoustic triggers on almost every offshore rig since 1993. How do regulators decide what is necessary? I suspect this again has to do with study of safety integrity levels and the perception of risk. Read the full article in this link

Decisions and Disasters

An article titled "BP Decisions Set Stage for Disaster" alleges the following about the BP oil spill:
A Wall Street Journal investigation provides the most complete account so far of the fateful decisions that preceded the blast. BP made choices over the course of the project that rendered this well more vulnerable to the blowout, which unleashed a spew of crude oil that engineers are struggling to stanch.
BP, for instance, cut short a procedure involving drilling fluid that is designed to detect gas in the well and remove it before it becomes a problem, according to documents belonging to BP and to the drilling rig's owner and operator, Transocean Ltd.
BP also skipped a quality test of the cement around the pipe—another buffer against gas—despite what BP now says were signs of problems with the cement job and despite a warning from cement contractor Halliburton Co.
Once gas was rising, the design and procedures BP had chosen for the well likely gave this perilous gas an easier path up and out, say well-control experts. There was little keeping the gas from rushing up to the surface after workers, pushing to finish the job, removed a critical safeguard, the heavy drilling fluid known as "mud." BP has admitted a possible "fundamental mistake" in concluding that it was safe to proceed with mud removal, according to a memo from two Congressmen released Tuesday night.
Finally, a BP manager overseeing final well tests apparently had scant experience in deep-water drilling. He told investigators he was on the rig to "learn about deep water".

The last point mentioned scant experience. I am seeing a trend in many Indian Companies that indicates a steep decline in competency of personnel working in chemical industries. The lack of competency is acute at the manager level where decisions are taken during an emergency situation. With the advent of the software industry, many engineers prefer a "soft" job with them rather than sweat it out in a chemical industry! Is the stage set for another Bhopal??
Read more of the article in this link

May 27, 2010

BP oil spill

An article in the Telegraph mentions that "Tony Hayward, whose leadership during the catastrophe has come under fire, insisted that his success at shaving $4bn off BP's costs last year had not contributed to lower safety standards.
"We have let people down in our defence of the shore, and we are going to redouble our efforts," he said, adding that cuts did "not have anything to do" with the accident".
Read more in this link

Process Safety – Reacting after an incident?

Why do organizations react only after incidents occur? Are they missing the signals coming loud and clear before a major incident happens? My understanding of the situation is that as long as nothing happens, process safety is assumed to be working. If anything does happen and there is major incident, all hell breaks loose and quick fix solutions – like becoming World Class in Safety are immediately thought of. What top management in many organizations are missing out is that there are enough warnings in the form of external and internal audit reports, incident reports and near miss reports that sound alarm bells before a major incident occurs. These signals are not picked up by the top management in time. While becoming World Class by adopting a best in class organizations’ practices is good, there is one important difference between copying a system and copying culture. A system can be copied quickly but culture cannot. In Indian conditions, it is very difficult to change culture quickly. It is a 24 by 7 job that has to be done by top management with unwavering support in times of resource crunches also. While a quarter on quarter growth in profits is demanded by the shareholders, why is not a quarter on quarter growth in safety performance also not demanded? I’m perplexed!!!

May 25, 2010

May 24, 2010

Blowout Preventer

What is a blowout preventer? In the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, it is suspected that the blowout preventer failed. Please see Wikepedia's explanation given below:
BOPs come in a variety of styles, sizes and pressure ratings, and usually several individual units comprise a BOP stack. Blind rams are designed to close an open wellbore. Pipe rams seal around tubular components in the well (drill pipe, casing, tubing, or coiled tubing). Shear-seal BOPs are fitted with hardened steel shearing surfaces that can actually cut through drill pipe and tool strings, if all other barriers fail. Since BOPs are important for the safety of the crew, as well as the drilling rig and the wellbore itself, BOPs are regularly inspected, tested and refurbished. Tests vary from daily test of functions of critical wells to monthly or less frequent testing of wells with low likelihood of control problems.Any of these BOPs may be installed underwater, normally with two hydraulic actuators.
Deepwater Horizon blowout
After the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion on April 20, 2010, the blowout preventer should have activated itself automatically to avoid an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Underwater robots were sent to manually activate the mechanism's switch, to no avail. As of May 2010[update] it is unknown why it failed.BP representatives suggested that the preventer could have suffered a hydraulic leak. Gamma-ray imaging of the preventer conducted on May 12 and May 13, 2010 showed that the preventer's internal valves were partially closed and were restricting the flow of oil. Whether the valves closed automatically during the explosion or were shut manually by ROV is unknown.

Please see this link for a pdf version powerpoint presentation of BOP (large file-be patient!).

Organisational culture and Process Safety

I always keep wondering why companies spend so much money on implementing behaviour based safety systems when in real life, what is actually required is the behaviour of top management towards process safety! If top management are able to track and recognize the process safety issues that need attending to, then the organizational culture will be conducive for the success of PSM. A walk around by top management to every nook and corner of their plant once in 6 months is adequate for them to understand the PSM issues!Organizational safety culture must come from the top and it is free to implement!
A recent OSHA report mentions the following:
Since the BP Texas City explosion in 2005, OSHA has counted over 20 serious incidents in refineries across the country.
Last year, OSHA completed an investigation of a naphtha piping failure and release, in which the resulting explosion and fire seriously injured three workers; two other workers, relatively young at 49 and 53 years old, died. One of these two workers was killed in the explosion; the other struggled for 13 days in the hospital before dying from severe burns. Within the unit where this rupture occurred, OSHA discovered multiple pipes that were operating below their retirement wall thickness. In fact, the very line that ruptured had previously ruptured and had to be replaced a decade earlier. As this tragedy makes clear, this type of breakdown maintenance is simply unacceptable. Good mechanical integrity programs are absolutely essential to safe refinery operation.
In 2007, water freezing in liquid propane piping resulted in a jet fire and a rapid evacuation of the entire refinery. Three workers, aged 33, 35, and 42 were seriously burned and hospitalized. Investigators found that a Process Hazard Analysis team had recommended installing remotely operable shut-off valves, yet the recommendation was improperly closed as "complete" by the previous owner. In fact, the valves had not been installed at all. The lack of these shut-off valves impeded workers' ability to control the propane release before it ignited. The refinery learned a hard lesson: It is essential to rigorously follow up on PHA findings to ensure that hazards are adequately controlled. Failure to abate serious hazards can have deadly consequences.
In 2008, at another facility, an explosion in a hydrocracking unit blew the head off a process water filter. The debris struck and killed a foreman; he was 53 and had been with the company for 30 years. OSHA's investigation revealed that an inadequate start-up procedure had allowed hydrogen gas and air to accumulate in the top of the filter where it was likely ignited by pyrophoric deposits. OSHA learned that some operators had recognized the hazard and used an undocumented alternate approach that was actually safer, but the procedure had never been updated to incorporate the safer practice. The result of following the faulty procedure was a violent explosion and the needless death of a refinery worker ? and a reminder that having safe, complete, and accurate operating procedures is essential to safe operations in process units.

May 22, 2010

Facility siting and hazardous chemicals

Greenpeace has sent a blimp over a chemical plant in Delaware, as part of a worldwide campaign to eliminate toxic chemicals. Their focus is on toxic chemicals that could spread in an airborne plume if released suddenly by an accident or terrorist attack. The article mentions that "Federal risk management reports indicate that up to 660,000 people live in potential “downwind” areas at risk in the event of a sudden, complete release from one of the 90-ton chlorine tank cars routinely parked at Edge Moor in east Wilmington.A similar accident at the Chambers Works operation, near the Delaware Memorial Bridge, could endanger 2 million people, by federal estimates".
In India, the problem is more acute.Residential dwellings are allowed to come up in the no man zone surrounding hazardous chemical factories.
Read the full article in this link

May 21, 2010

Cyclone Laila and Headcount procedures

Today's Times of India carries an article mentioning that cyclone Laila uprooted one of the anchors of the ONGC oil rig Sagar Vijay in the Bay of Bengal, thus destabilising the rig. The article also mentions that ONGC could not give the exact number of people on board at the time of the incident.How robust are your headcount procedures? Test them in surprise tests. During mock drills everything is hunky dory but when an emergency strikes, are your systems telling you the exact number of personnel inside your facility? A proper head count system prevents body counts.
When I worked in the Middle East, I was also a volunteer firefighter for the plant firefighting team. We had an elaborate head count system for firefighters also, to ensure that all firefighters are accounted for. It is better to plan for the worst.It does not cost much but can save lives!

Dust explosions and vacuum cleaners

The CSB has been doing a great service by increasing awareness about dust explosions. Dust explosions can occur in sugar, sawdust, coal, and in fact anything that is combustible including combustible metals. Housekeeping plays a very important part in eliminating dust in the work area. Industrial vacuum cleaners are available to do the job safely. One such cleaner is given in this youtube link. I am not endorsing their product but I thought that the video was a good one!

Hydrogen incidents

Click here for the site. This site is a useful site for incidents connected with hydrogen. For those of you dealing with this dangerous gas, these incidents will help you understand its dangers. Hydrogen is handled in refineries,ammonia plants and chlor alkali industries.

May 20, 2010

Blowing of natural gas lines

Finally the CSB has released a statement about natural gas blowing of pipelines. A survey has been conducted by CSB. "According to the survey, using natural gas to clean pipes remains the most common single practice in industry, employed by 37% of respondents. The other respondents reported using nitrogen, which is nonflammable, or inherently safer alternatives such as air, steam, or cleaning pigs. On February 25, 2010, eighteen days after the explosion at Kleen Energy, the CSB stated that natural gas blows were “inherently unsafe” and urged industry to seek alternatives".
Even last week, I had warned a natural gas user to prevent the blowing of lines with natural gas itself instead of using nitrogen. Read more of the CSB statement in this link.
Read my earlier post on the topic in this link.

May 19, 2010

Confined spaces are deadly

Time and again, we realize how deadly a confined space can be but lives continue to be lost. The number of deaths we have read in newspapers involving conservancy workers entering sewers and asphyxiated by hydrogen sulfide are countless. In chemical plants,refineries,food industry, transportation industry, power generation, pulp, paper and other industries, deadly gases can accumulate inside confined spaces. No wonder they are called silent killers. CO, H2S, CO2,CH4, Ammonia, paint,thinners, solvents, nitrogen are all deadly inside a confined space. Reactions that take place inside confined spaces including fermentation can make the confined spaces deadly.
Treat your confined spaces with respect. Have a proper confined space entry permit that is enforced.Read some of the accidents in confined spaces in this link
The CSB video on hazards of nitrogen in confined spaces can be viewed in this link.
Read an interesting article on confined space threats to farmers in this link!

May 17, 2010

Oleum release incident - CSB findings

The CSB has released its final report on the uncontrolled oleum release from INDSPEC Chemical Corporation in Petrolia, Pennsylvania, which forced the evacuation of three surrounding towns in October 2008.Oleum was released when a tank transfer operation was left unattended during weekend operations and an oleum storage tank overflowed.
The CSB investigation has determined that the normal power supply for the three oleum transfer pumps was equipped with a safety interlock, which would automatically shut off the flow of oleum when the receiving tank was full, thus preventing a dangerous overflow. However, the oleum storage building also had an auxiliary or 'emergency' power supply that had been installed in the late 1970s. It was originally intended as a temporary measure to keep the pumps functioning during interruptions of the normal power supply but eventually the emergency power supply became a permanent fixture. Facility management never installed interlocks for the emergency power and written operating procedures did not address how or when the emergency power supply should be used.
The CSB case study report identifies four key safety lessons for companies:
- In the 1980s, the facility changed the structure of the emergency power supply from temporary wiring to permanent conduit. The facility did not evaluate the significance of this change.
- The facility installed the emergency power supply without the engineering controls that already existed on the normal power supply.
-The facility's storage system design required operators to transfer oleum on the weekend to ensure operations were unaffected during the week. Operators used a work practice developed years earlier to transfer oleum using two pumps concurrently. This work practice was never recorded in written operating procedures.Management must remain vigilant in evaluating how work is actually performed.
- The facility never included information on the emergency power supply in piping and instrumentation diagrams and written operating procedures. Personnel hazard assessment (PHA) teams were therefore unable to evaluate the consequences of emergency power supply use.

Read the report in this link

Importance of Near misses in process safety

A newspaper report (Hindu dated 14.5.10) indicates the following points about the oil spil in the Gulf of Mexico:"Oil executives ignored warning signs in the hours before the Deepwater rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico last month, a congressional hearing heard on Wednesday.
In a second day of hearings, the U.S. House of Representatives' energy and commerce committee said documents and briefings suggested that BP, which owned the well; Transocean, which owned the rig; and Halliburton, which made the cement casing for the well, ignored tests in the hours before the 20 April explosion that indicated faulty safety equipment".

No major incident occurs without warning. Do not ignore your near misses!Read more of the article in this link

Bhopal Gas disaster and the recent BP oil spill

A newspaper report indicates that the verdict on the Bhopal Gas Disaster court case will be delivered on June 7th,2010 in a Bhopal Court in India. During the trial, 178 prosecution witnesses and 3008 documents were examined. The disaster happened in 1984 and the wheels of Justice move slowly! Cut to the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last month. Already the US house of representatives has begun an inquiry to pinpoint responsibility and accountability. In the Bhopal gas disaster, the entire liability was settled for 470 million US dollars. In 1989 a oil tanker called Exxon Valdez spilled oil in Alaska and the damages reportedly paid by Exxon was US dollar 5 billion. Exxon reportedly paid US dollar 940 each for every penguin that was contaminated with oil and had to be cleaned. In contrast, the Bhopal gas victims damaged for life received US Dollar 500 each!(Source: Greenpeace report).
Lets us wait for the verdict in the Bhopal Gas Disaster!!

May 10, 2010

Crisis management and the media

The BP oil spill and the media coverage about it throws up the powerful role of the internet in disseminating information. Companies must be fully prepared to handle such crisis. BP is also using twitter to keep the public updated on the oil spill containment efforts. In India, most of the the media coverage of any incident borders on the paranoid and is aimed at getting high viewership ratings at that instant. The Jaipur oil depot fire is a classic example of this. Companies must have a crisis management plan ready and test it periodically.

May 9, 2010

BP oil spill videos from youtube

Please see these videos for info on the BP oil leak.
1.Oil spill

Process Safety and Leadership

After the BP Texas disaster in 2005, the then CEO of BP Lord John Browne resigned and Mr Tony Hayward took over. An article mentions the following: 'When Mr. Hayward took over BP's leadership from John Browne three years ago this week, the company was at one of the lowest points in its history: badly run, accident-prone and accused in the aftermath of a deadly explosion at its Texas City refinery of putting profits before safety. Mr. Hayward turned BP around, boosting production, cutting costs and significantly reducing on-the-job injuries. Mr.Hayward set about radically simplifying the company and cutting costs. Senior executives were cut by a quarter. In all, 6,500 people, or just under 10% of its work force, lost their jobs. Last month, he was confident enough to talk of an irreversible "change of culture" at BP.None of that seems to matter now, as BP heads into the crisis grinder that has chewed up big names like Toyota and Goldman Sachs. And with about 5,000 barrels of oil leaking from the damaged well each day, Mr. Hayward knows it".
Read more about this interesting article in this link.
Read about the mitigation efforts in this link

Process safety information and BP incident

A number of articles are going around on the BP oil spill incident. In one of them, a whistleblower is supposed to have raised safety concerns about BP Atlantis, the world’s largest and deepest semi-submersible oil and natural gas platform. In this article it mentions the following "It was then that the whistle-blower, who was hired to oversee the company’s databases that housed documents related to its Atlantis project, discovered that the drilling platform had been operating without a majority of the engineer-approved documents it needed to run safely, leaving the platform vulnerable to a catastrophic disaster that would far surpass the massive oil spill that began last week following a deadly explosion on a BP-operated drilling rig.
BP’s own internal communications show that company officials were made aware of the issue and feared that the document shortfalls related to Atlantis “could lead to catastrophic operator error” and must be addressed.“The risk in turning over drawings that are not complete are: 1) The Operator will assume the drawings are accurate and up to date,” the email said. “This could lead to catastrophic Operator errors due to their assuming the drawing is correct,” said Duff’s email to BP officials Bill Naseman and William Broman. “Turning over incomplete drawings to the Operator for their use is a fundamental violation of basic Document control, [internal standards] and Process Safety Regulations.”
Read more of this article in this link.

May 2, 2010

BP Oil Spill

The latest BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could turn out to be bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill. The President of the US himself has flown to Louisana for a first hand look. One would have thought that after the BP Texas Disaster in 2005, many checks and balances would have been put to prevent another disaster. We will have to wait and see the results of the investigation...
See photos of the spill in this link

May 1, 2010

Process safety in batch operations

What goes around comes around! As far as process safety incidents in batch process go, I sometimes despair whether we will ever learn from previous incidents. Last year I had investigated some batch process incidents, the causes of which are very very familiar - incompatibility,scale up issues, heat removal issues, MSDS issues and raw material storage issues. For those of you working in the batch process industry, the UK Chemical Reaction Hazards Forum is a good place to get information on batch incidents. Share these incidents with your operating personnel and check whether it could happen in your organization. For further details go to this link.

What I learnt in Process Safety – A tribute to my senior managers at Madras Fertilizers Ltd

32 years ago, I joined the ammonia plant in Madras Fertilizers as a graduate engineer trainee and then went on to be shift in charge and assistant manager in the ammonia plant. The lessons I learnt in process safety from the senior management* are still fresh in my mind. There was no PSM system, no ISO 14001, no OHSAS 18001, but in the ten years I was there, there was no serious process safety incident!
The senior management then were all experts in plant operation and maintenance – you could not fool them! Their decisions were taken appropriate to the risk involved and clearly communicated. They also made sure that critical jobs which had a process safety issue were always supervised by them by giving clear instructions and follow up. This way we knew when we were going off track and correct ourselves before anything happened. They were true “managers” – who played the fine line between process safety and production with such a finesse, you could not but admire and learn from them.
We did take a lot of “process safety risks” when there was a situation, but it was a calculated and clearly communicated risk – with the result, we were always under control.

Cut to today – Today in many plants, there are distinct gaps between what senior management think what is going on as far as process safety is concerned and what is actually happening at the ground level. Why is this happening? My own understanding of the situation leads to the following:

1.Some of the senior management do not have an understanding of the plant – they may be qualified MBA’s but in a chemical plant, what matters most at senior management level is their conceptualization of key process safety risks!
2.Many Senior management do not want to hear “bad news” related to process safety but welcome “bad news” related to sales and profits. I compare the senior management I started my career with many of the senior management today – the difference is that “bad news related to process safety” used to be ferreted out by the senior management I worked with, even though I may think it was not necessary to tell them!
3.Many boards of directors in present chemical companies do not have a clear understanding of the difference between process safety and occupational health and safety.
4.Senior management are led astray by the numerous certifications of ISO 14001/OHSAS18001 etc. leading to a false sense of complacency.
5.Many of the reactions of management today after a process safety incident are of a knee jerk reaction. A comprehensive long term approach is lacking. Everyone wants to safeguard their remaining time with the organization!

*I pay a strong tribute to my former senior managers at MFL: (Late) Mr P.N.Arunachalam, Mr Jacob Eapen, Mr N.Gajendran and (Late) Mr S.Rangaiah