Process Safety in Oil and Gas Operations

1 January 2017

Process safety management system (PSM) has received greater attention in the oil and gas industry because of the major memorable accidents that have occurred within the industry and the severity of their impacts on stakeholders.

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The Bhopal gas tragedy which occurred in December 1984 from the release of methyl Isocyanates (MIC) where over two thousand people died and the Flixborough disaster which also happened on 1974 where about twenty eight workers were killed and thirty six workers suffered from serious injuries alerted the essence of PSM in the operations of not only oil and gas activities but in other process industries (Hackitt 2010). The application of PSM has been steered by organizations like the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; Center for Process Safety, as a management system to manage hazardous processes.

PSM is a proactive approach which seeks to identify and manage hazards, risks and safety during operational activities in order to prevent process and equipment failure, major injuries and fatalities (Harry 2003). It is aimed at developing plants and processes to prevent the release of highly hazardous chemicals (HHC) during operations which could lead to dangerous effects, fires and explosions (Bureau Veritas 2010).

PSM addresses matters that relates to operability, stability and quality of processes and its merit goes beyond prevention of accidents to increase productivity, quality improvement, waste and cost reduction (Cockburn 2011). The mention of major accidents within the oil and gas industry brings one question to mind- what went wrong? And in response, it is obvious that their occurrences are connected to issues concerning PSM systems. This article discusses process safety management in oil and gas operations: the past, present and future directions.

Referrals to major accidents would be made to exhibit the trend of process safety in oil and gas operations. 2. 0Process Safety Management in Past Operations of Oil and Gas Companies The oil and gas industry has experienced numerous catastrophic events which their occurrences could have been prevented. A greater percentage of accidents that occur during operations are process related accidents of which their extreme impact has led to the drains of financial resources and reputation of most oil and gas companies.

A typical example cited is the Piper Alpha disaster in 1984 and the explosion at British Petroleum (BP) Texas Refinery in 2005. 2. 1Oil and Gas Companies Mistook Process Safety for Personal Safety Most oil and gas companies concentrated largely on personal safety than process safety and for this reason; mistakenly perceived that records of no loss time injury, no recordable injury frequency were indicators of standard process safety performance (Baker et al 2007).

Hackitt (1993) comments that the insufficiency measurement of process safety led to the believe that rarely do new accidents occur however accidents are repeatedly happening because people leave the company and take the knowledge about process safety with them. From this, it could be deduced that the knowledge about process safety was lacking within the industry. Again, oil and gas companies perceived safety to be concerned with personal safety but not related to their processes.

This could be that they relied much on information system manufacturers’ provided about their systems and for that matter failed to provide additional safety in their systems and processes. 2. 2Poor Process Safety Culture and Unsafe Work Practices A typical example can be cited from the events surrounding the Piper Alpha disaster where a relief valve in the pump was removed for maintenance and a blank was loosely installed as a replacement of the relief valve on the piping flange (CCPS 2005).

In addition, the culture of ignoring near misses and incidents as not having the potential to cause harm is what can be said of process safety in previous operations of oil and gas companies (Pate-Cornell 1991). Also, due to poor process safety culture, BP didn’t have a process safety audit system which could have revealed all the inherent hazards and risk associated with their operations and for this matter the accident at the Texas City refinery happened (Baker et al 2007).

It is obvious that the poor process safety culture made management and operators in the oil and gas sector to under estimate the role process failure could lead to accidents. Again, USW (2007) reports that most Oil and Gas refineries in the United States practice bad process safety systems where most refineries used atmospheric vents on their process units which accounted to the release of untreated flammable and dangerous substances.

It continues to report that work tool trailers were located closely to process nits thereby exposing them to dangerous conditions and also permitted unqualified workers to work in risky areas during operations. Moreover, plants were modified without thorough risk assessments, failure to conduct pressure test after installing new pipework at Flixborough (Hackitt 2010) was another poor process safety practice. This poor process safety practice was the root cause of the explosion. It can be said that the poor practices of process safety was due to unawareness that processes could go wrong. 2. 3Complex Processes and Plants Design

According to Hopkins (2007) the complexity of processes and plants design caused process related accidents to happen. Hackitt (2006) consents that process control and safeguarding equipment have also become complex thereby increasing the risk involved in their operations. It can be argued to an extent that the complexity and design of plants and systems have been established for safety reasons and with its material safety data sheet (MSDS) the level of risk may reduce. Again, the complexity of the processes was handed by workers who didn’t have adequate knowledge and expertise on process safety.

Apart from this, misconceptions that redundancies are meant for safety purposes and for that matter the possibility of accident happening is rare demonstrates how process safety was taken for granted in past operations of oil and gas companies. For example, in the Piper Alpha disaster, it was believed that automatic shut down and alarm systems were enough to prevent the accident (Pate-Cornell 1991). 2. 4 Non- compliance of Process Safety Guidelines and Regulations Oil and gas companies operating in the downstream did not comply with process safety guidelines and regulations .

Occupational health and safety administration’s (OSHA) standards on hazardous waste operation and emergency response and PSM of highly hazardous chemicals; and Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Programs were overlooked. These regulations provide refineries to undertake effective PSM in all their operations so as to reduce accidents (USW 2007). It could be explained that most companies where seeking to maximize profits at the expense of protecting their equipment and processes; they were pursuing cost cutting strategy as they perceived process safety to be costly and technical to deal with (Baker et al 2007).

However, the existence of these regulations were not enough to ensure their compliance, there were no regular monitoring systems in place to check those operations which violated the regulations. It is believed that if the guidelines and regulations were strictly enforced with effective monitoring systems then most oil and gas refineries would have no reason not to comply by them. The challenge is that such regulations and guidelines are not to be legally enforced as they are voluntary policies.

The Current State of Process Safety Management in Oil and Gas Operations There has been a radical shift towards the intensification of process safety within oil and gas activities by way of correcting past mistakes and changing the old ways of doing things. PSM has gained holistic attention which is integrated into offshore and onshore activities. 3. 1Intensification of Process Safety Management System in Oil and Gas Operations Personal safety performance is not considered to be process safety performance. Process safety is now given a different attention.

Thus, PSM is integrated in oil and gas operations in addition to personal safety. To improve the current state of process safety performance, inherent safety management system has been integrated into PSM. This however presents its own challenge. Oil and gas companies are developing different strategies to improve process safety in their operations. For example, Process safety in Royal Dutch Shell is centered towards design integrity, asset integrity, operating integrity, technical integrity and leadership integrity where it continually monitors its process safety performance in its operations.

The current state of process safety in the operations of oil and gas companies is evident by current level of process safety leadership demonstrated by top management of oil and gas companies. The need for leadership commitment in PSM has been addressed within the industry. Most chief executive officers and top managers have been trained about the importance of PSM and how to manage process safety at all levels of the organisation (Hackitt 2010). It is believed that this will avoid making poorly informed decisions which in effect will avoid the occurrences of unforeseen disasters.

For example, management of BP provide effective leadership through the establishment of desirable goals and infusing into the mindset of its workforce that process accidents is not tolerable in the organization and through the continually communication with line managers, supervisors and staff process safety awareness has deepened (Baker Panel 2007). It can be questioned that how then did the Macondo blow out in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 occur if BP has improved its process safety leadership and commitments? Process safety leadership and commitment is a challenge which is currently facing the industry.

In addition, the key programme three (KP3) review indicates that the role of leadership in integrity management have been developed within the industry and has led to include asset integrity in its key performance indicators of which in effect improves the quality of information on process safety not only to top managers but employees as well (HSE 2009). Not only has process safety leadership improved but the commitments demonstrated by oil and gas companies have contributed to improve PSM system through investments in process safety.

For instance, in 2006, Shell invested $6 billion to improve process safety in its upstream facilities and in 2010 invested $1 billion to improve safety and reliability of its refinery, chemical plants and distribution facilities (Shell n. d). 3. 4Process Hazards Identification Techniques Again, process risk assessment through the application of process hazards identification tools have been integrated comprehensively into oil and gas activities.

The focus on process hazards identification techniques have been intensified through the application of layer of protection analysis (LOPA), hazard identification (HAZID), hazards and operability (HAZOP) and fault tree analysis (FTA). These techniques are continually modified to identify and assess all risk associated with processes, plants and systems (NPRA 2010). It can be said that these techniques have helped to identify and manage risks, near-misses and incidents which could have led to repeat major catastrophe.

This does not imply accidents are not happening within the industry but it can be said that these techniques are used to reduce the likelihood and severity of dangerous occurrences; nevertheless they have their own limitations. 3. 5Process Safety Culture and Practice In addition, there has been the call for process safety culture by all stakeholders involved in oil and gas operations. The results of safety culture surveys are communicated to all stakeholders and there has been a constant review of process safety policies and practices.

The approach to effective PSM systems has moved from compliance to a state where process safety is owned by management and employees. The KP3 survey reports that safety culture has improved within offshore activities. This has been enhanced due to current industry guidance on NRB policies ‘not required back’ of which continues to be a major policy which is expected to be implemented worldwide (HSE 2009). The impact of technical competence and training of employees to improve process safety culture have not been underestimated.

Operating essential training and core technical training are periodically provided to employees to increase their awareness on process safety (Oxley 2010). In United Kingdom, minimum industry safety training (MIST) has been provided for most offshore employees to improve upstream safety (Oil and Gas 2009). 4. 0Future Direction of Process Safety Management in Oil and Gas Operations The way forward for PSM in the oil and gas sector will depend on process safety leadership (despite the fact that process safety leadership has improved) and how PSM will be prioritised in corporate agenda.

Process safety leadership will be driven by core values of oil and gas companies where safety design and engineering would be integrated into companies’ policies and strategies (Hackitt 2010). Demonstration of leadership commitment through the allocation of resources to improve assets integrity and the constant monitoring of operations is the bedrock for process safety in the future (Chevron 2006). It can be said that the focus on performance indicators in oil and gas operations will also provide feedback to management about process safety performance.

Oxley (2010) consents that performance indicators like risk matrix and process safety events will be useful in oil and gas operations. Leadership in PSM will be enhanced with the awareness that profit is closely related to the integrity of processes and systems and where there is a continuous learning curve in the organisation (Hackitt 2010). Not only learning from incidence and near misses or fatal injuries but also sharing information and learning about the best industry practices on process safety and how these practices can be improved continually.

The journey to PSM will also depend on Technology and Innovations within the industry. It is believed that new technologies and inventions will help improve PSM in oil and gas operations. New technologies will find solutions to current challenges pertaining to process safety (Hackitt 2010). 5. 0Conclusion The oil and gas industry has suffered numerous major accidents which could have been prevented if PSM systems were holistically integrated into their operations.

The occurrences of memorable disasters like Flixborough disaster, Bhopal gas tragedy, Piper Alpha disaster, BP Texas City refinery explosion, Macondo blowout have alerted the industry to modify its safety management system hence the need to pay significant attention to PSM systems to prevent the occurrences of similar disasters. PSM systems in recent operations of oil and gas companies have been modified and improved, however, still seeks for continuous improvements for better sustainability of energy resources. It may be recommended that attention on process safety should not discontinue the importance of personal safety in the industry.

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