Savor Construction Sites

Nov. 17, 2011
But make sure the excitement remains enjoyable.

Nothing can prepare you for your first construction site. Electricity is in the air but so is fear. There’s euphoria when things work out and utter despair when they don’t. After a lifetime of project work, I can offer some sage advice so you experience more delight than distress.


First, never trust the design — even if you did it yourself! Always look for flaws, so in the end there won’t be many. Design destines projects for success or failure. During construction you can salvage a bad design with liberal application of money and hard work, but you’ll still face ongoing troubles. Unfortunately, most corporate cultures won’t admit the failure and start a fresh design.

You can take several steps to help your project succeed:

1) create an organization chart that lists who’s responsible for instruments, controls, insulation, heat tracing, equipment and piping, and who’s the backup;
2) train contractors, constructors and other personnel on procedures for job plans, work orders, lockout, confined space entry, spare parts inventory, etc., and continually reinforce this training;
3) decide what access to allow the army of contractors you’ll need for a big project, and give them the access right away or risk a morale problem;
4) develop backup plans for labor and supplies, complete with a vendor list;
5) establish a parallel training program to keep key personnel focused — forget about on-the-job training;
6) set up secure working and storage areas for contractors and constructors with safe access — buses and bikes work best for shuttling workers around big sites;
7) have operators, engineers and constructors continually walk-down construction, but first train them about what to look for and add it to checklists;
8) select a central site as a work-order shack, put someone in charge each shift, and include the shack in the inspection routine — paperwork must be orderly and clearly explained so every contractor knows the job; lists such as those of active, inactive and incomplete jobs must be current; and verbally quiz workers about their tasks frequently;
9) plan for emergencies such as foul weather, emissions and near-misses;
10) work up inspection flow charts and procedures for constructors and your project staff with deadlines for every approval, and ensure everyone knows everybody else’s job;
11) create a system of tags for everything and train people how to use tags — they must be legible, dated and of the correct type;
12) use tested skid-mounted equipment for cleaning, purging and conditioning; and
13) make a list of potential problems and update it as you go.

You can expect to encounter all sorts of problems while constructing and commissioning a chemical plant. Here’re some I’ve run into:

• An inexperienced engineer ordered a crane operator lift a 1-ton load and hold it in place while operators dumped the load. This is illegal on seven continents — the crane could become unbalanced and collapse. The crane operator, older and wiser, said no.

• Poor lighting delayed instrument commissioning in a blizzard. We needed night vision goggles.

• On my way to lunch, I caught a lift operator creeping backward headed for the local power station. I stopped him just inches from disaster and then chewed him out and called his supervisor. Moving a lift or anything anywhere, even up and down, requires a watcher, maybe two. When safety becomes nonchalant, enforce pre-job checklists.

• A voltage regulator blew up. I’d suggested a vent design but nobody was listening. After the fire, they were all ears.

• Operations removed plugs from solenoid valves to increase their closing speed. Rain could have caused a spectacular failure. Valves weren’t tagged and operations forgot to tell anyone. When in doubt, tag everything.

• Breathable air was switched with purge nitrogen. Luckily, the plant manager caught the pipe-tagging error.

• Carbon steel was used in place of nickel alloy, causing a fire. It seems that chlorine burns iron above 430°C. There was no quality control. A simple hardness test nixed this problem.

• A plant selected untried flow meters as the keystone of reactor operations. The commissioning team fought meter problems for months. When the meters failed, so did the plant.

• Falsified check-out documents resulted in the destruction of a 1,500-hp pump motor. Involving maintenance and operations from the start is the only way to avert this kind of disaster.

• A production manager couldn’t be bothered with a work order. He told a mechanic to do the next pump in line. The operating pump was disabled by mistake; down went the plant. Keep communication clear. To forestall avoidable accidents, explain work down to the welder cutting the pipe. Do spot interviews to catch errors.

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. You can e-mail him at [email protected]

About the Author

Dirk Willard | Contributing Editor

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor.

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