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Podcast: Is A Hurricane Harvey Hangover the reason for so many safety incidents in Texas?

Oct. 28, 2019
Senior Editor Traci Purdum asks Director of IChemE Safety Centre, Trish Kerin, if extreme weather challenges like hurricane Harvey are to blame for a slew of safety incidents.

Trish and Traci examine ways to mitigate risks when mother nature comes barreling down your door. Also discussed: proper shut-down and start-up procedures as well as information for first responders.


Traci: Welcome to this edition of "Process Safety with Trish and Traci," the podcast that aims to share insights from current incidents to help avoid future events. I'm Traci Purdum, senior digital editor with Chemical Processing and I'm joined by Trish Kerin, the director of the Institution of Chemical Engineers Safety Center. IChemE is based in the U.K. and Australia but its reach is global.

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Traci: Well, hey Trish, how are you doing today?

Trish: Well, thanks, Traci. How are you?

Traci: I'm doing okay. We're starting to get fall weather here in Cleveland. So it's beautiful with the trees changing. So that's always nice, but the snow is soon to follow. So not looking forward to that. But I know you're in Houston right now. So how's the weather down there? And I know you're there for the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center Symposium. So maybe you can give us a little update of what's happening.

Trish: Yeah, sure. I'm on over in College Station in Texas. I've arrived up here now after a long journey from Australia. Looking forward to the symposium starting tomorrow at the convention center here at the university. It's certainly got a great agenda, coming up with a lot of really interesting discussions. So particularly looking forward to seeing some of the presentations on the agenda. I'm talking about ways to improve a student's experience when they do an internship so that they get a better quality process safety interaction and how do we improve education at university and process safety as well. A lot of highlights to happen up here.


Traci: That sounds fascinating, and I know IChemE has a big presence there. I'm glad that you took some time to chat with me today. And the topic today is extreme weather. And a few years ago, I wrote an article for Chemical Processing on prepping for extreme weather challenges. At the time, the Houston area was dealing with several hurricanes, Harvey being the big story at the time. It seems that since then the Houston area has really had to deal with a slew of process safety incidents. Do you think Harvey is to blame?

Trish: I don't think it's necessarily to blame but I think it perhaps has some of a part to play. Obviously, in an extreme weather event like Harvey that occurred over here, a lot of facilities literally found themselves underwater. Aside from the wind damage or the other issues that they had, it was really the storm damage that created most of the issues here. And when we've got plants that are designed to be submerged in water, we've potentially got problems creeping in that we maybe hadn't realized when we went through the checking and the restarting process, perhaps. I do wonder whether that is something that has potentially had an impact. And obviously, we then see that earlier this year and, you know, only last month, the rain from Imelda in Houston as well again created substantial flooding related issues that potentially do have an issue because we are, as I said, submerging items of equipment that whilst they're designed to be outside in the weather, they're actually not designed to be underwater.

Traci: And you did mention that there are processes in place to shut down plants on short notice when weather comes in, but what about startup procedures? I know these plants want to get up and running as soon as possible. Some of these plants, during that time, they were shut down for three, four weeks at a time. I know they wanted to do a quick startup, that can be dangerous. So what's going on there?

Trish: Yeah, so I think, look, every facility that operates through shutdown and startup activities actually do have detailed procedures in not only the emergency shutting down but also the startup process and how to go through that process. And sometimes we get that wrong, and we've seen examples in the past where the startup procedures have not been followed for various reasons and have resulted in incidents. But I think one of the biggest challenges here is that we're not looking at a standard startup, even a standard startup after an emergency shutdown when we're coming out of an extreme weather event.

We also have to take into account the weather event itself. And there needs to be a series of inspection activities that look at whether we've actually got damage that we can't see by just a visual inspection going on behind the scenes. But once we start up, we may see an issue. So I think we need to be very careful to make sure we take the time to do the appropriate checking. The challenge is, this is still quite new for us. I mean, we've seen two quite extreme rain weather events, for example, in Houston over the last couple of years. But there have been previous instances where Houston has also got a lot of excessive rain from previous hurricanes or tropical storms. But we're probably seeing a bit more now. And I think the challenge is that we might not have a great grasp on where to look for those problems.

I know one of the things, for example, I live in Australia, it's a very, very dry country typically. And one of the things that we see quite often, and this is just a public example, is that we have a number of power outages, blackouts that occur after we have a really big storm in summer. And the reason for it is is that we've had a long dry hot summer and dust gets into the transformers and the electrical equipment on the poles and wires, and then it rains. And the rain actually finds a pathway through the dust and causes shorting out. We know that happens. So now we can deal with that a bit better and we can prepare for that because it's been going on for quite some time. And now electricity companies have got better at managing that. So we see less blackouts from that particular type of failure.

What are the sorts of things that we need to be concerned about in terms of coming out of a hurricane or a flood type situation in checking? Particularly in some of the electrical aspects, we got something in there that might cause an intermittent short that we're not expecting potentially, these sort of things, checks that we need to be able to understand. And to get there, we need to be doing risk assessments. And I think those risk assessments need to be a little bit different to the ones we've historically done because we need to take into account these extreme weather event issues. And one of the challenges is that with some of the traditional risk assessment methodologies, we kind of discount things because they just seem so implausible. But the fact that we're now seeing these extreme weather events more and more frequently says that perhaps they are more plausible. We can't just dismiss them, we need to accept them. And one of the ideas here is that we actually need to look at the consequences of the event, not necessarily the pathway that would get us to that event.

There's certainly a good book that I would recommend on that called "Natech Risk Assessment and Management: Reducing the Risk of Natural Hazard Impact on Hazardous Installations," and that's by Elizabeth Krausmann, Ana Marie Cruz, and Ernesto Salzano. And it's one of the best books that I've come across in looking at this Natech type issue, so natural hazard triggering technological disaster type incident. I think we need to go back and revisit our risk assessments when we plan our startups. And we need to do this when we've got time to do it. Not in the middle of the incident, in the middle of the event, trying to deal with how we get the plant back up and running again faster.

Traci: Exactly, you have to think about it beforehand. But as you pointed out, it's hard to think of all of the scenarios that can happen with these types of events. So the book that you mentioned is a great resource. But are there any other resources out there? I mean, are folks pooling their incidents of what happened? I know when I wrote the story, it was interesting to talk with some folks who were in the throes of this whole event as it was happening and they were, you know, dealing with wildlife coming in. Those are things you don't realize will happen in an extreme weather challenge. Are there any other resources that they can tap to find out? "Oh, I didn't even think that would even happen, and now I do, and it's something simple, but is it out there?"

Trish: Yeah, there's a number of different areas where we can see some of this information. And in fact, the latest edition of "Process Safety Progress" by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, I received my copy the other day and I was reading through it, and there's actually a section in there around preparing for extreme weather type events and I would certainly recommend taking a good read of that. And your comment about dealing with wildlife and the like, there's actually a photo in there of, from memory, I think it was a raccoon in the control room or in an office or something, it had wandered in. So you're right, there are all these sorts of different hazards that we need to think about. In other parts of the world, we see different sorts of hazards that you don't really consider.

In the U.S., for if you go to Thailand and you go wandering through refineries, you'll come across monkeys, and sometimes monkeys can do things like move controls, which is a really big problem. So you need to actually, depending on where you are, have a really good understanding of your own environment. There is definitely a lot of good research papers out there on some of the things to expect. There's a whole lot of different advice out there and information. If you just search that natech, N-A-T-E-C-H, you'll find a lot of different information out there.

The other area that is really useful is for companies to have a chat to the insurer. And the reason I say this is because the insurance engineers that come through and do your assessments will often, we're now seeing them more and more advise on preparation for natural disaster. So they have a vast amount of information that they get to see because they insure companies all over the world that face all sorts of natural disasters. They're a great resource, tap into your insurance engineer and get their advice and actually listen to them because they're not telling you that they want you to prepare for certain things for fun. They're actually doing it based on evidence, based on the information that they see. I've heard a story that apparently there was a...and I don't know how accurate this is, but a manufacturing facility that had prepaid for extreme weather and hurricane events in Puerto Rico that actually survived and kept operating without a problem at all because they had prepared. Yeah, they had prepared for that sort of incident. So, when Maria struck, they remained unaffected or very minimally affected. And so we can get better at this, but it does require us at times to be a little bit creative and think about what wildlife you might have infiltrating things. If you're in Louisiana, for example, then you might actually need to think about alligators, potentially, in a massive flood event. These are genuine things to consider. You know, in Far North Queensland in a flood event, we actually think about crocodiles. And we do think about that because they do end up in the main street, in extreme weather, in a cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere. So sometimes we need to get a little bit creative in some of this area and not discount because it sounds implausible to have an alligator in your facility or a raccoon in your control room, these things happen.

Traci: They do indeed. And if folks aren’t in the path of extreme weather, if they don't have to be in the path and worry about this, they can still do some takeaways from these types of risk assessments. I think it's valuable information. Will we continue to see problems in these hurricane path areas? And what I'm getting at is the things that we maybe can't see that in a few years down the line, we're going to witness other failures, do you think that's something to be concerned about?

Trish: Look, I think it is. I mean, one of the things that you can think about in that space is where you've got these major flood events that are occurring and you have underground pipelines, what stresses are being put on those pipelines as the earth is potentially subsiding and moving around them? And that's very hard to see because the pipeline's buried, we don't necessarily have access to it. So that's just one example that I could think of immediately to say, you know, over a longer period of time, we could be seeing an impact that we're not anticipating yet. So I think there's a lot out there that we need to be thinking about how we can actually really get a grasp on what's going on. I think the other thing I'd add is, we've all got these emergency response plans and they're really important documents, but we need to exercise them, and we need to train them, and we need to make sure that people are comfortable in acting out their role in the emergency response plan.

But the other thing to consider is how much of your emergency response plan is reliant on external services coming to help you? Because you might not be in the path of the flood, or the path of the hurricane or whatever extreme weather event it is, if you're in California, it might be a forest fire or anything like this. But if all of society's resources that you want to call on are actually busy defending society, then they're not going to come to you. So how can you be resilient enough to look after your own facility? And so even if you're not one of the people that's in one of the likely direct paths, you really need to consider how you can actually have a resilient response plan in the event that the emergency services actually can't get to you. And I think that's something that we perhaps lost sight of in some of the instances. Our emergency responders were absolutely doing the best they could in these incidents and these events that have occurred, but there's only so many of them, and if they can't even physically get to you, then they can't help you.

Traci: A great point and also the supply chain. If you're on the other side of the world waiting for something that is coming from one of these plants that are impacted, what do you do there? You're going to incur issues that your own plant that's hundreds of miles, hundreds of thousands of miles away, so things to consider definitely. You mentioned training on the preparedness, your checklists or whatever. How often should you be training for these types of events?

Trish: Well, typically, the sort of frequency I'm used to is that you really want to put every operator through an emergency response activity at least once a year. And I would suggest at least every three years a full-blown exercise that involves all of the emergency services coming in as well. So the full-on community liaison activities that need to take place, you initiate your command centers, you actually have people playing the role of concerned community that's turning up at your front gate. You have people phoning in asking questions about what's going on. You have people phoning in pretending to be media because we actually need practice in all of the things. It's not just a person dealing with the incident on the ground.

But the other thing we need to try and make sure we do is make sure that those exercises on the ground are as realistic as possible. So you might need to get the local fire station to turn up in their truck and go through the process of them arrived at your gate, what's the next step to get them to come in and help you fight whatever the issue is that's going on? So for example, one of the things that I've seen, particularly again, in Australia, when the fire brigade turn up, they actually don't just race straight through the gate and straight to the fire. You have to give them a full briefing so they know what they're going into because they're not gonna put themselves in danger. They're trained for this and them putting themselves in danger doesn't help anybody.

You need to actually train those communication activities. Even something as simple as if you phone 911...and I don't know what the protocol is here because I've never had to phone it, fortunately. But at home, if I phone the equivalent number, and I need to call for an ambulance or a fire brigade, or whatever, to come in to my area, they will ask you all sorts of questions. But if you're not prepared to answer, you can trip over at times. They'll ask you for the address, but then they'll ask you what you nearest crossroad is. And sometimes people will get stumped by that simple question. "Well, I'm not sure." So making sure that anybody that is going to make that call has the information, they know it immediately so that you can get the response as fast as possible. These little protocol communication things are so vitally important in good emergency response because without them, we end up with escalating consequences. And in the worst-case incidents, firefighters or emergency responders being injured or fatally injured in events that occur, which is tragic as well.

Traci: Excellent advice. Extreme weather is just one of the many obstacles chemical processing plants must consider. Preparedness and due diligence are always key. Unfortunate events happen all over the world and we will be here to discuss and learn from them. On behalf of Trish, I'm Traci and this is "Process Safety with Trish and Traci." Thanks, Trish.

Trish: Thanks, Traci. Stay safe.

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Trish Kerin, director, IChemE Safety Centre, Institution of Chemical Engineers, spent several years working in design, project management, operational, safety and executive roles for the oil, gas and chemical industries. She currently sits on the board of the Australian National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) and is a member of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center steering committee. You can email her at [email protected].
Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, joined Chemical Processing as senior digital editor in 2008. Traci is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. You can email her at [email protected].

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