Fires and explosions in a process industry environment can have fatal consequences.
To appreciate the sobering truth of this statement, you need only remember incidents such as Flixborough, Bhopal and Piper Alpha in the North Sea, which all caused major loss of life.
Fortunately, not all process industry fires and explosions end in fatalities. Take Buncefield, for example. It is regularly described as ‘the largest explosion in peacetime Europe’ and incurred damages totalling £750 million – but nobody lost their lives.
However, these types of non-fatal incidents can cause serious injuries, as documented by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which investigates safety failings within the engineering community.
Poor management of highly flammable liquids can have catastrophic results both for individuals and businesses
HSE inspector Kieron Jones
Typically, companies that incur major fines will have routinely failed to adequately protect their employees.
For instance, a UK drink manufacturer was recently fined £270,000 after one of its employees was engulfed in flames at a gin distillery in Oldbury.
The 21-year-old man sustained 20% burns to the head, neck and hands while transferring ethyl acetate from a bulk storage tank into an intermediate bulk container.
An investigation conducted by the HSE found the most likely source of ignition was a discharge of static electricity generated by the transfer of the ethyl acetate.
Pipework and associated valves at the distillery were also found to be poorly maintained, HSE said, while further investigations also revealed a failure to competently inspect the equipment or monitor the systems of work.
Following the hearing, HSE inspector Kieron Jones said: “Companies that fail to ensure the integrity of their safety critical equipment place their employees, members of the public, emergency services and their entire livelihood at risk of serious harm.
“Poor management of highly flammable liquids can have catastrophic results both for individuals and businesses.”
To help avoid these incidents, HSE says employers (and/or building owners or occupiers) must implement a fire safety risk assessment and keep it up to date. This shares the same approach as health and safety risk assessments and can be carried out either as part of an overall assessment or as a separate exercise.
“Based on the findings of the assessment, employers need to ensure that adequate and appropriate fire safety measures are in place to minimise the risk of injury or loss of life in the event of a fire,” says HSE.
These measures include the installation of a wide variety of technologies – from flame detection and alarm systems to misting units, which are typically designed to minimise the risk of gas or dust ignitions.
“When you’re concerned with protecting lives and the future of your operations, you need an optimum solution for each facility and location,” says Lara Kauchak, general manager for flame and gas detection at Emerson Process Management, which manufacturers a number of safety products, including the Rosemount 975 flame detector series.
When you’re concerned with protecting lives and the future of your operations, you need an optimum solution for each facility and location
Lara Kauchak, general manager for flame and gas detection at Emerson
In some cases, plants will opt for bespoke solutions to ensure their specific fire and explosion prevention requirements are met. For example, fire and explosion specialist Fike recently developed what it says is the first ATEX-certified explosion isolation valve for a biomass plant installed at Immingham Rail Freight Terminal.
Fike developed the valve alongside Nottinghambased company MID Valves, which tested and launched the product – with full ATEX certification – in six months, the company says.
The technology was designed and implemented so that isolation valves of the correct size and certification could be applied across all aspects of the project, Fike explains.
Keith Avila, general manager at Fike, suggests: “Using this new valve, in conjunction with Fike’s chemical isolation system, has provided a fast acting explosion-proof slide valve of a scale that has never been seen before.”
But despite the speed at which companies like Fike can deliver new fire and explosion technology, there are a number of safety concerns that must first be addressed before a product can be mass-manufactured.
According to HSE Guidance INDG370 (Rev1), which discusses the control of fire and explosion risks in the workplace, companies must reduce the quantity of dangerous substances to a minimum; avoid or minimise releases of dangerous substances; control releases of dangerous substances at source; and prevent the formation of an explosive atmosphere, including by ventilation, says Keith Sillitoe, health and safety advisor at the British Safety Council.
Chemical manufacturers will need to consider flammable, unstable and incompatible liquids and substances and the food industry will need to consider the risks of dusts – such as flour, sugar, grain and wheat
Keith Sillitoe, health and safety advisor at the British Safety Council
“[The guidance also stipulates that companies should] collect, contain and remove any releases to a safe place; avoid ignition sources; avoid adverse conditions (such as exceeding pressure/ temperature limits) that could lead to danger; and keep incompatible substances apart.” Unfortunately, no two industries have the exact same safety challenges, Sillitoe says.
“For example, chemical manufacturers will need to consider flammable, unstable and incompatible liquids and substances and the food industry will need to consider the risks of dusts – such as flour, sugar, grain and wheat,” he says.
“When these are in microscopic airborne particulates and mixed in the right concentrations with air, an explosive atmosphere is highly likely resulting in primary and secondary explosions.”
Mike Bradley, director of the Wolfson Centre for Bulk Handling Technologies, warns there is a grave lack of understanding in regards to safety where dust explosions are concerned.
“Not only are some engineering firms unaware of the legislative requirements, they are also unware of the real hazards.”
To combat this, companies should draft safety policy and practice documentation, but many do not, Bradley explains.
Not only are some engineering firms unaware of the legislative requirements, they are also unware of the real hazards
Mike Bradley, director of the Wolfson Centre for Bulk Handling Technologies
“Thankfully, dust explosions are rare – but this can cause a problem insomuch as they are not that commonplace, and therefore not many people are aware of what causes them or what they need to do about them.”
In terms of engineers understanding the dangers of working with flammable or explosive products, Bill Treddenick, director at Lorien Engineering Solutions, says there is a lack of awareness among some responsible for the operation of manufacturing plants.
“Unless the materials being processed are well known to be flammable and/or explosive by their nature,” he adds.
“The result of this is the design, development and construction of facilities and process lines that are good from a product processing aspect, but may miss critical components that will protect them from fire and explosion, or the propagation of fire and explosion from one zone to another.”
Training: Explosive research
Risk management company DNV GL recently opened a new training centre at its large-scale testing and research facility at Spadeadam in Cumbria.
More than £3 million has been invested in the centre to increase the ability to perform rarely-available trials in a controlled and secure ‘real-life’ environment, DNV GL said.
The site features some of the world’s most advanced destructive and nondestructive test facilities. The new training and conference facility will enhance experiential learning for the oil and gas, chemical, utilities and security industries, the company added.
Work carried out at the site consists of confidential, large-scale, major hazard tests, including flammable gas dispersion, fires, explosions, pipeline fracture tests, blast and product testing in a safe and secure environment.
Elisabeth Torstad, chief executive officer, DNV GL, Oil & Gas, said: “While the industry is understandably preoccupied with generating shorter-term value, we must be vigilant in ensuring safety remains a top priority. Our challenge is to continue giving the message to clients that cutting costs without understanding the bigger risk picture can end up being ineffective, and ultimately very costly to the business.”