Many chemical plants handle flammable and toxic materials. The increasing interest in designing out hazards (see "Consider Inherent Safety at Your Plant,") hopefully will lead to reduced risks at numerous existing sites and will provide even greater benefits for future facilities. However, we can't escape the reality of the chemistry that underpins our operations. Making some products invariably must involve reactions or other steps whose materials and conditions pose significant risks.
Indeed, a chemical facility is responsible for the worst industrial disaster ever. More than 25 years ago, a leak at a pesticide plant at Bhopal, India, killed thousands. That incident galvanized the industry into action, leading, for instance, to the formation of the Center for Chemical Process Safety by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, New York City, and the Responsible Care program of the American Chemistry Council, Arlington, Va.
Operating and engineering companies now devote substantial attention to safety and take a formalized approach using tools such as hazard and operability studies, and layers of protection analysis (LOPA) to identify risks and how best to address them. (Some managers, though, distrust LOPA, see: "Overcome Skepticism about LOPA.") Likewise, firms today carefully evaluate the safety integrity level (SIL) required for instrumentation used to forestall risks ("Do You Really Need SIL 3?").
However, as safety guru Trevor Kletz notes in "Bhopal Leaves a Lasting Legacy,": "The disaster taught some hard lessons that the chemical industry still sometimes forgets."
So, while the industry's safety record has improved substantially since the Bhopal disaster, further gains certainly are possible — and, indeed, necessary. Companies should strive to equal, if not exceed, the enviable record achieved by Dow Chemical, Midland, Mich., as I've already noted ("We Can Learn a Lot from Dow Chemical.")
Michael Gambrell, executive vice president of manufacturing and engineering operations for Dow, shares some insights on how Dow has attained its stellar safety performance and what other companies can do to replicate its success in "Make Safety Second Nature." It's crucial to tackle both the soft and hard sides of safety, he notes. The soft side, which revolves around making safety a part of the corporate culture, is harder to address than the hard side, which involves companywide operating disciplines, processes and tools. Hopefully, the five tips he gives will help other chemical companies create an effective and enduring safety culture. To succeed, of course, firms must "walk the walk," not just "talk the talk."
Today, security imposes an added dimension to maintaining safe plant operations. Threats unimaginable little more than a decade ago now loom large and have spurred regulations such as the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards. For more on what's happening with these mandates and other security efforts, you should regularly check our Chemical Security Action blog, http://community.ChemicalProcessing.com/chemical_security_action).