Small Chemical Firms Face Safety Issues With Less Resources

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By Nushin Huq

Small and mid-size chemical companies face the same challenges as large chemical companies when it comes to safety processes, but bigger firms have more manpower, money, and time to do so.

But, chemical process safety enhancements at those plants can stem from reviewing risks despite resource constraints, according to Greg Milewski, a Texas-based manager with KMCO.

When Milewski joined the Crosy, Texas-based company, he said time was a limited resource. The company had grown from a start-up into a large facility but its safety controls were not strong enough, he said at an Oct. 12 panel discussion in Houston on implementing safety plans.

“We needed something more robust,” Milewski said at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates ChemStewards National Safety Symposium. “I was worried about the time element, we needed to get something in place before a significant incident” occurred.

Instead of spreading limited resources over all the hazards in the plant, Milewski said it’s better to get management to prioritize. For KMCO, a facility that has 28 reactors and 580 storage tanks on 15 acres, that meant first reviewing all hazards and then singling out the biggest risks. The company did an inventory of all the hazards: safety, operational, and business and put in place barriers to prevent those potential hazards.

The Receiving End

Another major process safety challenge is understanding the exact nature of the materials give them to process, Larry Birdsell, custom processing business director for Trecora Chemical, said.

Trecora is a large scale producer of by-product polyethylene wax and wax derivatives. The LaPorte, Texas, company does custom processing for major chemical companies when those firms need additional work done on chemical products before they are ready for market.

“We need to understand the true nature of materials and hazards,” Birdsell said. “Initial representation of materials may not be what you receive. Representative samples of material may be hard to provide or not accessible.”

When Trecora does a project selection, it looks at the probability of success. The company has to be capable of handling multiple hazards, Birdsell said. Because of that, they also decline projects because those hazards need to be handled in specially dedicated facilities.

Engaging Employees

Of the 14 elements of process safety, employee engagement is No. 1, Dana Cooper, CEO and President of Cooper-Hayes LLC, said. Her consulting company helps small chemical companies focus on getting all their employees engaged, giving them an industry advantage.

“You are outperforming your peers when you are able to do that,” Cooper said. “With engaged employees, you can hire better people and outperform competitors.”

The key drivers for employee engagement include interaction of managers, confidence in managers, and pride in company, Cooper said.

Are We There Yet?

While regulation is needed to set a common playing ground for companies, more regulations will not prevent more accidents, Sam Mannan, a chemical engineering professor and director of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University, said during a keynote address at the conference.

Despite regulations on the books to prevent chemical safety hazards, incidents keep happening. For example, ammonium nitrate is subject to a variety of regulations, Mannan said, but they failed to prevent two recent explosions in 2015 at a container storage station in Tianjin, China, and in 2013 at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant.

“Ammonium nitrate is not a very complex compound to understand or to store,” Mannan said. “If we can’t do such a simple activity without blowing things up, that’s a problem.”

In both cases, operators ignored known information and didn’t take precautions, Mannan said. The West, Texas, plant wasn’t in compliance with existing regulations, and the federal agency in charge of enforcing the rules hadn’t been to the plant in the last 28 years.

“You think adding another regulation will solve the problem?” Mannan said. “Another 20 regulations wouldn’t solve the problem as long as it just stays in the books and it’s not enforced.”

The main causes of accidents are usually the same, Mannan said, including failing to fully understand equipment design and a lack of effective communication systems to report system deficiencies or check the integrity of the equipment. Investigations should also dive deeper and discover the root causes, he said. It’s not enough to say the cause of an incident was human error, he said, and even the smallest mishaps deserve attention.

“If you work on lower tier incidents, higher tier [incidents] will never happen,” Mannan said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nushin Huq in Houston at nHuq@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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