Monday, December 22, 2008

Maintain Process Safety During the Recession

By John S. Bresland
As the holidays approach, Americans are getting some much-needed relief at the gas pump where prices have been dropping. While that’s good news for drivers, the economic downturn will likely reduce margins at the nation’s oil refineries. As refining margins fall, the pressure will always be there to trim operating expenses – perhaps by delaying a needed repair project or cutting operator positions. During this period of economic uncertainty for refineries, management and workers alike need to remain focused on process safety. Oil company managers, executives, and boards of directors should ensure that fluctuating oil prices do not impact needed preventive maintenance and investment in the nation’s refineries. Unfortunately, around the country, refinery accidents continue to be a concern. On November 20th, during seemingly routine operations, flammable hydrocarbons were suddenly released, causing an explosion and fire at a refinery in Tyler, Texas.
Two workers at the refinery were fatally burned. The explosion also damaged a manned room located near the perimeter of the unit. The company has announced that the refinery will remain shut down until the middle of next year. In February 2008, a refinery in Big Spring, Texas, experienced a major explosion that caused damage both on-site and off-site. And just the month before, a veteran employee was killed in a process-related explosion at a refinery in Texas City, Texas. That’s the same refinery where 15 workers died – and 180 others were injured – in a devastating blast on March 23, 2005.
The Chemical Safety Board found that corporate spending decisions in the 1990s – when oil prices were low – played into the tragedy. Our investigation noted that preventive maintenance, training, and control room staffing were cut in an effort to economize. Managers deferred the installation of modern flare systems to control hydrocarbon releases. The accident, years later, not only caused untold human suffering but also cost the company billions of dollars – a far heavier price than the safety equipment and management systems that could have prevented the disaster. My safety message for oil and chemical companies is clear: even during economic downturns, spending for needed process safety measures must be maintained. Downturns and recessions can actually be a good time to take care of deferred maintenance. In fact, as noted process safety expert Trevor Kletz has observed, downturns and recessions can actually be a good time to take care of deferred maintenance. That’s because there’s less financial impact from temporarily shutting down a process during periods when sales are depressed. Today, as gasoline prices remain low, companies should weigh each decision to make sure that the safety of plant workers, contractors, and communities is protected. In the long run, companies that continue to invest in safety will reap benefits far into the future.

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