Putting safety first is fundamental in all complex high-risk process and energy industries. However, throughout the history there have been countless of plant incidents proving the catastrophic consequences of safety breaches in the design or operations. This has resulted in tragic losses of lives, enormous material damages, oil spills, and chemical pollution. It has even put major companies out of business.
Strict requirements and regulations are put in place to ensure that organizations plan and execute plant designs and that the operators eliminate all safety risks within the design and plant operation.
How do we handle safety in design?
When building a new plant or plant process, from conceptual design and throughout every project phase, all safety risks need to be identified, addressed, and mitigated with appropriate safeguard solutions. We know that within the industries, these plants are very complex and knowing that you have a safe design is very demanding. Performing HAZOP workshops has proven to be an efficient way to systematically analyze complex processes in order to identify and evaluate problems that may represent risks to personnel or equipment. We rely on the competences and expertise of selected personnel in the team attending the workshops, and available documentation at hand. Most often the HAZOP results in hundreds of action points with design inputs and operational procedures for engineering to verify and adopt afterwards. How do we conclude and qualify the results? During engineering of high-risk processes, we will perform 2-3 rounds of HAZOPs and later re-HAZOP every 5 years.
Many will experience that these workshops are exhausting. It can also be challenging to know that we have addressed all possible risk points. Another issue is that for each “iteration” of a HAZOP, the team setup could have changed. How do we ensure that learnings and decisions from previous sessions are kept and made available?
Safety in Operations
During plant operations, with proper design, the safety automation will handle safety critical situations and always make sure the plant is in safe state, protecting the people and equipment. However, for complex plant processes we should always expect that there will be some equipment malfunctioning, that equipment is taken out for repair/maintenance, or frequent deviations and disturbances to the process system, which results in alarms in the control room. In these situations, the operators have to step in and handle the situation manually before risking an escalation to safety systems shutting down a process or the entire plant. How do we deal with these situations? How do we ensure that operators recognize the fault situation?
There could be many reasons for keeping the plant running despite that the process alarm limits have been triggered. We might evaluate the situation as non-critical for safety and accept a temporary situation out of normal state to the system affected, but we do not want to lose production, stress production, etc... The responsibilities of the operators in the control room are very high, so the experience combined with tools available to support understanding of the situation and decision-making are imperative. How can we capture the organizational knowledge and expertise from design and operation across plants and make it available in real time for any operator?
New safety solutions?
For plant design to be compliant, stay cost-effective, and meet project deadlines at the same time, we should use the opportunities to look at new solutions within safety work tools and work processes that can support optimal and safe plant design, avoid suboptimal workflows, and dangerous and costly design errors. For optimal asset operation we should make sure that the design knowledge, the basis for why equipment and solutions are chosen, and known operational experience including failure handling, are kept and made available for all users that support the daily operations and decision-making in the control room.