1 September 2005
Site-sage exits spur safety concerns
By Ellen Fussell Policastro
An August news report discussed the "rash of incidents" involving major processing units and four fires "at a time when refiners are trying to run flat out to meet demand." The outages have put added stress on already constrained U.S. fuel-production capacity. "Refineries running at 95.8% of capacity is one possible explanation, which is the result of a U.S. refining system pushing too hard," said Paul Horsnell, head of energy research at Barclays Capital.
Could these incidents also be part and parcel of the "tsunami hitting the industry" keynote speaker Dave Beckmann referred to at this year's World Batch Forum? "What's happened in the industry over the last 25 years is we've tried to save our way to success," Beckmann said. "Companies have run lean crews and suffer from constrained resources. They don't have technically qualified people to do the required engineering."
It could be, said Angela Summers, president of SIS-TECH Solutions in Houston. Staff reductions, layoff packages, a young inexperienced workforce who might "not understand the full weight of their decisions because they don't have the experience," are some possible reasons for the "tsunami." With the loss of experienced workers, who "usually kept a check and balance," mistakes are happening that are "simplistic mistakes," Summers said.
"There's no complicated engineering involved, and this is really where industrial standards become even more important," she said. "When you have to have all these transitions that occur post merger, your staff relies on the accepted practice." But what is that practice? Is it what they remember? Is it what they read? "Industrial changes and internal practices based on standards help buffer those staffing transitions," she said. Even though you're dealing with young people, they [need to] understand the minimum that has to be done to do the job safely. The more you downsize, the more you have to implement practices, or experience a downswing."
Last one out turn off the light
As productivity rises, plants need fewer workers, said Dennis Brandl, president of BR&L Consulting in Cary, N.C. "It's easier to not replace workers when employees leave or retire, rather than fire workers. A lot of companies say they are reducing the workforce through attrition. There is no new blood to replace the retiring employees, and younger employees tend to be more hirable, so they are more likely to leave. As a result, the average age of workers usually increases."
In fact, "plants are aging to the point where it's difficult to maintain safety," said Paul Gruhn, safety product specialist at ICS Triplex in Kingwood, Tex. "Why do you think plants are sold so often by the majors, and how do you think the second- and third-tier buyers maintain or upkeep them? Staffing is getting so lean there's nobody left with any process or safety knowledge. Heck, there isn't even anybody to mentor, let alone be mentored by. The contractors don't (and can't) know all the process and safety issues. Problems are bound to happen, as we're starting to see."
Although baby boomers are retiring, leaving nobody to pass on unwritten knowledge, "it's hard to tie any specific industrial accident to this, but we need to carefully watch the trends for minor accidents," Brandl said. "Usually little things go wrong first, before the news-making accident happens," he said. "If a company sees industrial accidents and injuries rising, then they may have a problem with the loss of workplace knowledge."
Also, while companies get rid of their pension plans, merge, and split, "it's harder to keep people interested and productive for 10, 15, and 20 years," Brandl said. But companies might be able to increase pension plans and make it financially palatable for older workers to remain at a company instead of job hopping. "Alternately, we will see a growth in the current trend for workers to retire, and then to be hired back as full-time or part-time consultants," he said.
One approach Foxboro uses is to "capture the control knowledge from these experts and make it an integral part of the DCS system," said Darren Moffatt, business development manager, life sciences, at Invensys Process Systems in York, Penn. "They incorporate in the system "principles put forward by employees who've retired," he said. It's one way to preserve the intellectual property (IP) experienced employees have developed. Continual training programs, apprentice programs and team approaches to projects also help.
"For our customers, I think ISA-88 is a big help in this area," he said. A big problem Moffatt said the industry doesn't see much of these days is the "home-grown control system," which one person has historically maintained. This person is the only one in the plant who knows how to understand and change the code. "When this person retires, the plant is left with a maintenance nightmare. ISA-88 provides a philosophy that modularizes the control code and makes it easier for companies to adjust to turnover, retirement, and lay-offs."
Moffatt's team also uses a methodology to identify and model the key, plant-level strategic metrics in real time. Custom dashboards help employees visualize real-time business intelligence. "This way operations personnel can have immediate feedback on the performance of the facility," he said. "Algorithms resolve data into meaningful terms, such as cost, waste, and utilization, by using expertise within the customer's organization to capture their intellectual property, which helps them minimize IP loss when employees leave the company."
Patrick Buckner, sales director at NNE US in Clayton, N.C., has also seen evidence of this loss-of-knowledge phenomenon in the life science industry. "Even within a global organization, the phenomenon of the site sage still exists," he said. "There are no formal processes from human resources or management to document that knowledge or pass the torch. Often this leaves the site in a near state of emergency for a number of months after these key people leave. If the plant is fortunate, the resource will come back to support in a contractor role."
Buckner has seen his share of senior operations people become interested in moving to the vendor side of the life science business. "This is usually the result of an acquisition or some larger corporate shift with local consequences," he said. "However, I also know some of the local companies are looking at employee turnover as a critical issue." Some of these companies are starting to roll out mentoring programs like Buckner's company, whereby they provide a written agreement between a mentor and mentee with goals and a timeline. Expected company behaviors are also on the list, "and everyone is evaluated in a 360-degree fashion on how they exhibit these behaviors," Buckner said. A six-month checkup determines if the mentoring agreement is on track.
Buckner's company has also noticed a need for mentoring in its engineering services industry and rolled out three programs to address it: an exchange program to share knowledge about specific technologies and life science processes between the U.S. and Europe; a two-year trainee program to hire recent graduates from the top engineering schools in the U.S.; and a mentor program.
Texas blast update
The overfilling and then overheating of a tower during the startup of the Isomerization (ISOM) process unit in BP's Texas City, Tex., refinery led to a 23 March explosion and fire that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 people, according to a BP Products North America's interim fatal accident investigation report. The explosion occurred because BP ISOM unit managers and operators greatly overfilled and then overheated the Raffinate Splitter, a tower that is part of the ISOM unit, according to the report. The fluid level in the tower at the time of the explosion was nearly 20 times higher than it should have been.
Since then, Federal investigators said managers authorized the start-up of the unit despite knowing key alarms weren't working. The Wall Street Journal reported the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board called on BP to set up an immediate independent panel to review safety across its U.S. refining operations. Such a panel should investigate safety culture as well as programs for reporting near-miss accidents and inspecting and repairing equipment. It also recommended the panel look at how BP has integrated safety practices at refineries it acquired in recent years.
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