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But we’re different, you know

November 5, 2013


PSM in Different Industries

In any industry there is a tendency for specialists to believe that only they can address the problems of their particular business. They do not readily accept that people from other industries can make a contribution. The response of in-house experts to an outsider is, “But we’re different, you know – we don’t think that you can help us.”

With regard to process safety management (PSM) this attitude is generally misleading. Certainly there are differences between industries; but those differences are relatively minor compared to the concepts and programs that they share. For example, Table 1 shows the fourteen elements of process safety that were first promulgated by OSHA (the United States Occupational & Safety Administration) in the late 1980s. Although written for the chemical and refining industries there is nothing in the list that is specific to those industries. A company that operates chemical plants, refineries, pipelines and offshore platforms can use all of these PSM elements.

Table 1

  1. Employee Participation
  2. Process Safety Information
  3. Process Hazards Analysis
  4. Operating Procedures
  5. Training
  6. Contractors
  7. Prestartup Safety Review
  8. Mechanical Integrity
  9. Hot Work
  10. Management of Change
  11. Incident Investigation
  12. Emergency Planning and Response
  13. Compliance Audits
  14. Trade Secrets

Industry Specifics

Although PSM programs are general in nature, there are, of course, unique features to each industry, including the following.

Oil Refineries

  • The operations of oil refineries are flexible because need to change product profiles depending on market demands and the crude oil feedstocks that they are using. This flexibility can create hazardous situations. (During a HAZOP one senior operator claimed that he could put gasoline in the refinery manager’s coffee cup just by opening and closing valves.)
  • Although workers at a refinery can be exposed to high hazard situations it is unusual for incidents to “go over the fence” and to affect members of the public (although HF and H2S can provide exceptions to this statement).

Chemicals / Petrochemicals

  • Chemical and petrochemical plants often use specialized and proprietary processes.
  • They sometimes handle toxic chemicals that can form a vapor cloud and go “over the fence”.
  • Corrosion is often a challenge, hence specialized and exotic materials of construction are often used. This makes the management of process safety information important
  • It is necessary to have highly reliable control and shutdown systems.

Onshore Pipelines

Smart-Pig-1Pipelines that transport oil and gas are mostly in the public domain — there is no “fence to go over”. Also many pipelines are buried so detecting a leak can be difficult, particularly if the pipe is not designed to handle smart pigs.

Offshore Oil and Gas

Some of the special concerns that offshore production platforms face include the following:

    • Lack of escape routes
    • Persons on board
    • Cyclones/hurricanes
    • Hydrogen sulfide
    • Dropped objects
    • Helicopters
    • Ship collision

Drilling rigs face a special issue, as discussed in the Two Second Rule, it can take many days to control a blowout.


Fukushima Reactor 4

Reactor 4

The above discussion could be seen as being no more than the basis of a mildly interesting conversation. However, the on-going, slow-motion crisis at the Fukushima-Daiichi (FD) nuclear power plant continues to be a high risk siutation — particularly with respect to the work that is planned for Reactor #4.

The situation at FD provides an opportunity for PSM professionals to be involved – for two reasons. First, the event continues to provide many lessons learned, particularly with regard to the prevention and management of high consequence situations. Second,  after two and a half years of struggle, it is possible that experts from outside the nuclear power industry could provide help to those charged with bringing this situation under control.

We will look into some of the process safety issues to do with FD  event in future posts (as time permits). But first a disclaimer: what is written here is based entirely on published internet and newspaper reports, the accuracy of which is hard to check and many of which have an obvious bias. It may be that additional Japanese language reports not available to the international community could provide clarification. 

There actually appear to be four quite distinct process safety issues:

  1. Although shut down, Reactors 1,2 and 3 are still hot and the integrity of their steel and concrete bases may have been compromised.
  2. The fuel rods for Reactor 4 were being stored above the reactor itself at the time of the earthquake. These rods need to be removed from what is now a seriously damaged building. If this operation goes awry the consequences could be very serious.
  3. Large quantities of cooling water have to be circulated to various units in the facility. Although some of this water is recycled, and some is being stored in newly constructed tanks, there is also a discharge to the ocean.
  4. Large quantities of fresh water from the hills above run under the plant, picking up radioactivity on its way to the ocean.

The Washington Post published a useful article on 2013-10-21. It contained the following statement.

But many lawmakers and nuclear industry specialists say that Tepco is perpetuating the kinds of mistakes that led to the March 2011 meltdowns: underestimating the plant’s vulnerabilities, ignoring warnings from outsiders and neglecting to draw up plans for things that might go wrong. Those failures, they say, have led to the massive buildup and leakage of toxic water.

“Tepco didn’t play enough of these what-if games,” said Dale Klein, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who recently joined a Tepco advisory panel. “They didn’t have enough of that questioning attitude” about their plans.

The same article has an interesting simulation that provides a timeline of the event and of the proposed solutions. (Slide #11 to do with the proposed ice wall is particularly interesting. Its inherent safety is questionable given given the longevity of the nuclear fuel and waste.)

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