By Gregory Hale
Does age really matter? In the process safety world, it really depends on who you are talking to and your perspective.

Let’s face it, plants and equipment at chemical facilities are getting older and experiencing significant incidents, and there is a severe lack of knowledgeable workers in the industry which add up to a heavy impact on process safety performance.

“As facilities are getting older, it is getting more important we put more emphasis and place more importance of the management of risk and taking additional care and take more understanding of the integrity process,” said Shakeel Kadri, executive director and chief executive of the Chemical Process Safety Center during his keynote address at the 16th GCPS Welcome Plenary Keynote Monday at the 2020 Virtual AIChE Spring Meeting & 16th Global Conference on Process Safety.

But this is not just about the aging of physical resources, it is also about the human aspect as well.
First, Kadri talked about aging facilities.

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Horrific Incidents
“In 2018 and 2019 were horrific years in respect to significant safety incidents,” he said. In all of the incidents over an 18-month period, the ‘youngest’ facility was 44 years old. “The largest amount of losses have occurred in North America, followed by Europe, Middle East, North Africa, and Asia Pacific,” Kadri said.

On top of that, Kadri said two major incidents in 2019 ended up triggered by failed components.

The metallurgy of these components were acceptable when built, but did not meet the new requirements when the incident happened.

“The retrofit and risk management of the new requirements has been a major issue,” Kadri said. “Fitness of service may be an issue of several of these incidents. Mechanical integrity-related failures accounted for a large portion of the incidents. If many of the same facilities are using the same tools to understand and develop (an understanding of) the damage mechanism for potential to functional failure analysis, why are were still seeing such incidents of the facility? Many are running aging facilities successfully. The key factor that can play here is the execution and operational discipline of the mechanical integrity.”

Diagram of the ages of facilities, in right corner of photos, that had a major incident over an 18-month period from 2018 through 2019.Source: Shakeel Kadri, Chemical Process Safety Center

Kadri talked about three incidents at facilities that were at least 50 years old that suffered multiple injuries and over $2 billion in damages:

In one incident a piping component failed releasing propane and hydrogen fluoride (HF). The explosion destroyed the entire refinery. The failed component did not meet the intent of the ASTM recommendations made 20 years later. It was recognized the area the piping was applied was a low-risk area. The incident provided new information and new risk management learning.

In a second incident, an explosion and fire resulted in injuries to 36 people and the evacuation of the town. The incident occurred in a fluid catalytic converter unit when it was off line for maintenance. An eroded valve was identified as a key technical issue. The potential gap was the risk assessment and the mechanical integrity program the company had applied.

In the third incident, a release of hot naphtha and hydrogen created a vapor cloud that ignited and led to an explosion and fire, injuring eight employees. The incident occurred as a result of a 1.5-meter crack that opened up in the reactor vessel. This showed another gap in the risk assessment and the mechanical integrity program execution.

Does age of a facility matter?

“Tools and techniques are available to optimize a mechanical integrity program to ensure components and equipment are inspected or tested to ensure potential failures are detected before an actual functional failure occurred,” Kadri said. “Age of the facility will dictate the level of frequencies. Incidents are also happening where there is a major lesson learned or an engineering standard change. The idea is not to retrofit the facility for every engineering standard change, but give you the new requirements to see how you are managing the new risk. The key is how are we managing the risk with the increased requirements?”

Fitness for Service
In the end it is all about the fitness for service process and about how these programs end up executed. “It is about a robust safety culture.”

That culture can lean more heavily on technology showing leading indicators of failure before they happen, which would ensure a safer environment.

Relying more on technology is becoming more important these days simply due to a loss in process safety knowledge. When you combine the concepts of Baby Boomers leaving the industry and younger engineers coming into the workforce with a dearth of process safety knowledge, relying on technology becomes a key factor.

That also should force companies to follow a more formal management of change process when it comes to the human resources component. People are retiring and millennials want to grow through the organization faster. So, there has to be a forma plan in place, Kadri said. The practice, however, is not widespread across the industry, but rather falling on individual companies.

Kadri did add new engineers coming into the industry need to learn more about process safety.

Process Safety Knowledge
“One consistent message I am hearing is students are lacking in process safety knowledge and schools need to do more the train them,” he said.

So, in the end, does age really matter? It depends on your perspective.

“In the imperfect world of process safety management and its execution, age does matter,” Kadri said. “We have to be mindful of aging facilities and the youthfulness of our human resources. We need to continue to focus on Big Data analytics and machine learning. We must have discipline adherence to standards such as damage mechanism and fitness for service to drive our risk-based mechanical integrity program. We need a strong focus on executional and operational discipline. We must continue to raise the ‘unease’ culture that (an incident) can happen here. We need to establish and execute the management of change of key process safety personnel and track their progress. We must also focus on process safety knowledge competency of our youthful resources.

“Aging is inevitable,” Kadri said. “The ultimate objective is to manage the risk in this process.”

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