The BP disaster in April 2010 at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers and injured 17 others, has thrown the spotlight on process safety not only in the energy sector but in chemicals and other high hazard industries. ‘Big accidents on oil and gas platforms inevitably reverberates on what’s happening in refineries, petrochemical and other heavy chemicals and then the rest of the chemical industry,’ says one chemicals analyst.
‘If the regulators start to get tougher about safety of rigs, they will also at the same time be keeping a closer eye on chemical plants as well,’ he adds.
The public will also for a while be more attentive to the safety performance of the chemicals sector. Recently, confidence in the industry in Europe and the US has strengthened but there is still an embedded suspicion about the dangers inherent in its production technologies.
The industry could also be making itself more exposed to accidents by making cutbacks in investment in improvement to their plants as a means of reducing expenditure at a time of economic pressures. ‘When demand is weak, some companies tend to see reductions in maintenance and capital expenditure as an easy option,’ says Paul Hodges, chairman of the London-based chemicals consultancy International eChem. ‘They forget that a good health and safety performance is good for business.’
In Europe, in particular, preserving levels of capital expenditure is seen as important because of the disproportionate amount of ageing plant in the region’s chemicals industry. Demographics are also working against the sector in Europe and the US because of the high numbers of its workforce who are close to retirement. With the departure of staff with a lot of safety expertise, companies are investing more in training younger staff in process safety. Managers are also having to become more knowledgeable in techniques for detecting dangers and preventing accidents before they happen.
In North America and Europe, major accidents in chemical plants appear to have been decreasing in recent years. In a report published in August 2010 on accidents in 2006–2008 in plants making dangerous substances, the European Commission said accident frequency, which for many years had been higher than three/1000 establishments/ year, was falling to under three on average. ‘[It] will hopefully approach two in the near future,’ it added.
However, while accidents have been decreasing, the backlash from each incident can have a severe impact on a company’s business. ‘For a large company, a fatality is a high probability event,’ says Andrew Hopkins, a sociologist at the National Research Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Regulation at the Australian National University, Canberra. ‘The fatality is likely to traumatise workmates and managers who are directly involved. The company may be prosecuted for failure to ensure the safety of the worker. And bad publicity may have a variety of intangible but profit-threatening consequences.’
In the US, regulators seem to have been becoming more strict with the chemical industry as well as refineries in enforcing legislation. In 2009, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) launched a process safety plan for the chemical and refining industries called National Emphasis Programs (NEPs). Hilda Solis, US secretary of labour, said that NEPs had been initiated ‘with the ultimate goal of preventing catastrophic incidents that can injure and kill employees and affect entire communities.’
An NEP inspection by OSHA officials can be a major event, even for a large company. ‘It can be very resource intensive,’ Ken Hanchey, a senior risk engineer at ABS Consulting, Houston, told the Global Congress for Process Safety, San Antonio, Texas, earlier in 2010. ‘OSHA has received well over 10,000 pages of documentation at one refinery during an NEP inspection.’
In July 2010, OSHA cited DuPont with six serious safety violations after a fatality following a phosgene leak from a ruptured hose at its plant at Belle, West Virginia. OSHA claimed the company had failed to properly inspect piping, perform a thorough process hazard analysis and to train workers on phosgene risks.
BP has continued to be punished by the agency after an explosion at its Texas City refinery killed 15 people in 2005, for which the company was initially fined $21m by OSHA, then the largest penalty in its history. In late 2009, OSHA imposed another record fine of $87.4m on BP because of failure to correct safety problems at the refinery.
Solis said that OSHA’s action was a reminder for the refining and petrochemical industry to improve their safety and corporate safety culture. They should take measures to raise worker participation in safety schemes, increase training and ‘the use of leading indicators like close calls [near misses] to gauge the safety of their facilities’.
In Europe, on the other hand, the chemical industry in some countries has been working more closely with regulators to boost safety standards. As a result, regulators have been using best practices in process safety developed by companies themselves as a basis for safety controls.
The UK Chemical Industries Association (CIA) has become a prominent member of the Process Safety Leadership Group (PSLG) set up by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK’s occupational health and safety agency, after the Buncefield explosion in 2005. One of the group’s aims has been to spread the lessons learned from the accident throughout the petrochemical and chemical industries.
It also drew up a document giving details of the implementation of a key recommendation from the accident investigators that fuel tanks should be fitted with level detection equipment, which would automatically cut off supplies in the event of an overfill. The document was effectively a statement of good practice within the refining, storage and chemical industries, but the HSE published it to give guidance on how companies could comply with the law.
Step-by-step guide on the development of process safety indicators
The CIA has also combined with the HSE to draw up a step-by-step guide on the development of process safety indicators. This includes the concept of ‘dual assurance’ for the use of leading indicators for the checking of incident-prevention activities and lagging indicators for the reporting and monitoring of incidents.
‘Our co-operation with the HSE is a way of showing our commitment to process safety,’ says Steve Elliott, CIA chief executive. ‘Currently our priorities in the area are to establish benchmarks, to find ways of helping the poorer performers and to spread the message about good practices.’
The EU seems satisfied with existing legislation on prevention and control of accidents in highhazard industries. It appears unlikely to make radical changes to the main regulation in the field, the Seveso II directive, which is currently under review.
‘There have been suggestions that the controls laid down in Seveso II should be extended to more sites,’ says Giuseppe Astarita, Responsible Care manager at Federchimica, the Italian chemical industry association, and co-ordinator of the process safety issue team of the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic). ‘But the directive is intended to provide special measures to deal with high-hazard production sites. There would be no benefit in bringing under the legislation sites, which do not require these special measures.’
The US chemical industry is, however, further advanced than its European counterpart in the integration of process safety with the Responsible Care programme, the chemical sector’s global health and safety initiative.
For the last 15 years, under Responsible Care the American Chemistry Council (ACC), representing US chemical producers, has required its members to report fires, explosions and chemical releases. It has also drawn up a code of process safety management practices to help companies prevent accidents.
The US-based Centre for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS), which is run by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChemE) and which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2010, has been active in publishing detailed guidelines. One of its current projects is the provision of guidance on management of organisational change, which is increasingly being seen as crucial to the maintenance of high process safety standards.
CCPS recently launched a benchmarking programme with the Houston-based consultancy Peter Townsend and Associates (PTAI). ‘One of the most important lessons we’ve learned from our experience of benchmarking the hydrocarbon industries for the past 17 years is that process safety is key to achieving success as a superior performer,’ says David Bohmbach, PTAI’s president and ceo. ‘Simply put, plants that lead in process safety also lead in most other key performance measures.’
Cefic is only just starting the procedure for gaining its members’ approval of a proposed scheme under which chemical companies will collect process safety data as part of the Responsible Care programme. The project is now likely to start within two years.
The data will be passed on to Cefic by Europe’s national chemical associations to try to create a pan-European picture of process safety patterns. ‘It may be difficult to make comparisons because of the lack of use of common indicators on sites,’ says Astarita. ‘It may be not be possible to devise measures so that one type would be suitable for all sites.’
In addition, the data for European Responsible Care will be different than that being gathered for the Responsible Care scheme in the US. The ACC, as well as the CCPS, uses the UN Dangerous Goods list for the choice of chemicals and thresholds while Cefic will base its project on the UN General Harmonised System (GHS) for the classification of chemicals according to their health and environmental hazards. The EU is currently aligning its chemicals legislation with GHS.
Also, there will be different reporting thresholds in the Cefic scheme because of the relatively large number of SME chemical producers in Europe, compared with the US. ‘Without lower thresholds, a lot of chemical companies in Europe might not be reporting any incidents at all,’ says one European chemical industry official.
The long-term objective for the global chemical sector is a uniform system of process safety data collection. The data would then be used to build up process safety methodologies, which could be easily transferred from one region to the other.
Instead, there could be a danger of process safety systems developed by the industry itself becoming fragmented so that confidence in them among regulators, politicians and the public will be weakened.
Sean Milmo is a freelance chemicals writer based in Essex, UK.