Design & Simulation / Safety Instrumented Systems

Weak Oversight Can Doom a Project

Don't timidly accept whatever a contractor proposes.

By Dirk Willard, contributing editor

The minute I looked at the process and instrumentation drawings I knew we were in trouble. This wasn't the elegant process I had designed: two contact condensers working in series to capture acid. Instead, it was a monstrosity. I felt violated. I made a quick list of things I wanted to change and decided to soldier on. I never got the chance. I felt like a conductor strapped to the cowcatcher of a runaway train yelling, "There's no track ahead!" Nobody was listening.

Fear of takeover is poison to a project.

The commissioning contractor had trumpeted its thorough methods including job safety analysis (JSA) and project reviews. The JSAs were done in a rush — for example, the discussion about a crane lift didn't involve a crane engineer. The project reviews must have happened above my pay grade because the electricians, pipefitters and engineers I worked among never saw a key manager of either the contractor or our client in the field.

Serious consequences ensued. The boiler's feedwater-pump-motor starter blew up one Sunday afternoon. Procedures may not have been followed in the urgent rush to meet the contract deadline at all costs. An electrician, who complained that safety standards on grounding weren't being met, was offered a window seat, slang for a ticket home.

Where did things go wrong?

Let's start with the basic design. Our part, the fluid-bed reactor and flue-gas cleaning system, was designed in roughly eight weeks. It was a mad rush for such new technology. We did a damn good job considering it was a sleepwalking exercise on four hours' sleep a night. Then, the project was dropped for about 18 months.

Once the delay was over, a new set of engineers asked, "How can we leave our mark on this thing?" Then, they posed the question no engineers should ever ask, "How can we impress our boss?"

Valves were cut; there were no main shutoff valves for steam, instrument air and cooling water. Expensive ball valves that might have worked were ditched in favor of unidirectional butterfly valves that leaked badly. Check valves were eliminated, replaced by butterfly shutoff valves — the leakers. Low-bid contracts were awarded for building tanks that now lie on their sides like the bleached bones of extinct animals; they failed the fill test! People who'd never started up such a plant modified control loops. Even worse, vessels were redesigned. When three scrubber pumps were deemed necessary the scrubber sump wasn't expanded to allow two pumps to operate smoothly at the same time; the resulting rattle will take its toll on the fiberglass pipe. Instead of going with what was simple, an open atmospheric tank to dump water in the separator to protect the fiberglass, someone opted for an "improvement," a pressurized system run on a bank of air bottles.

While these disastrous developments were unfolding, the client's engineers were distracted by fear of a takeover. They probably were huddled in despair — worrying about their jobs but safe in the knowledge that this fiasco would be somebody else's problem. That's what happened. Once the detailed design was completed, the project was built; then, for years, equipment was left to rot in a torrential tropical rain. The new owner hired a commissioning contractor to sort things out and, intimidated by fear and lack of knowledge, gave in to whatever the all-knowing contractor wanted.

Clearly by the time I'd arrived, little could be done. The contractor's staff just wanted to go home. Many of them resembled zombies after 72-hr weeks on seven-week tours. And the commissioning company, after four years of battling waterlogged motors and rusting superstructure, wanted to put this disaster behind it.

The new owner gets little sympathy from me. It should have been meeting separately with every vendor like me, not just the commissioning managers, using us as its inspection squad. Out of fear of rocking the boat, the client quietly conceded authority, but not responsibility, to the contractor. The contractor, not the client, signed my timesheet, so I reluctantly went along and counted the days until my departure.

Quietly, I made a few suggestions. I prepared carefully worded memos defining process improvements. Nothing will be done now but, someday perhaps, a sharp client engineer will wonder if anybody else looked at a particular problem and will find my memo.

Sometimes engineering ideas are like seeds, they need time to germinate.

Dirk Willard is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor. You can e-mail him at