When processing plant startups, careful and detailed planning and implementation of safety measures are very critical and can help prevent hazards and incidents. This should be seriously emphasized during this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic where businesses and industries are slowly reopening after a period of shutdowns and lockdowns. The recent Styrene gas leak incident which occurred at the LG Polymer plant in Vizag, India on the 7th of May, 2020 reiterates this importance and is issuing waves of caution to all industries.

This was a jolt and a wake-up call for all the Indian (and many global) chemical facilities which perhaps began to believe that an incident as tragic as the infamous Bhopal tragedy would not occur again. Union Carbide of India’s Bhopal pesticide plant had leaked toxic MIC gas during the early hours of the day that killed more than 4,000 people and injured and maimed hundreds of thousands in the December of 1984, and is considered by many as the worst industrial accident in history.

The Statistics

Research shows that high-hazard process related safety incidents are five times more likely to occur during startups than normal operations, according to the study by the Centre for Chemical Process Safety (www.chemicalprocessing.com/articles/2010/123/).

The paper lists 3 CSB incidents from 2001, 2002, and 2008, respectively. In 2001, 3 workers were killed at the BP Amoco Polymer plant in Augusta, CA when they attempted to open a pressurized process vessel containing hot plastic. The CSB investigation found that inadequate hazard analyses and communication contributed to the loss-inducing incident. The team had been trying to restart after a similar failed attempt 1 hours earlier.

The other incidents took place at a first Chemical Corp, facility in Pascagoula, MS and a Bayer Crop science plant in Institute, WV.

The LG Polymer Plant incident

In the case of the recent LG Polymer Plant incident, Styrene gas (both toxic and flammable) had leaked from a storage tank and was thus released into nearby residential areas at early hours killing 14 and injuring hundreds. The leak had occurred since the hazardous chemical Styrene was not stored at the appropriate temperature, which caused the pressure to build up due to runaway reaction. The preliminary information cited poor startup planning and inadequate maintenance procedures as the likely causes for this recent gas leak incident. If the emergency alarm sounded when the temperature started to rise it would have helped the nearby residents evacuate and escape from the tragic situation.

This incident could in fact be the tip of a massive, hidden iceberg.

Next Steps After the COVID-19 Lockdown

As the lockdown ends and industries begin resuming activities, an immediate alert or reminder must be sent to all facilities to ensure safety while resuming operations, to prevent other similar tragic incidents from occurring.

The following 11 recommendations provided by CSB serve as an excellent guide for industries to adhere to and implement strict safety measures during the facility startups.

  • Prepare a written operating procedure for start-ups based on a detailed safety review that covers management of change.
  • The written safe operating procedures need to have sufficient details to avoid the likelihood of failures.
  • Management of change should be reviewed, analyzed and any variance should be incorporated into the safe startup procedures.
  • Ensure that the facility’s lockout and tagout program is effective and implemented correctly. Employees should have authorization to stop works if deemed unsafe.
  • Do not rely on single isolation, instead use a double-block-and-bleed, and insert a blind flange (spade/blank) to control hazardous energy flow.
  • Computerized control systems should include an appropriate process overview and ensure that it is visible and accessible to all operators.
  • Improve operators’ understanding by allowing 2 way and multi-channel communications with feedback to avoid ambiguity during complex and critical process start-up works.
  • Ensure that operators are supervised and supported by competent personnel during startup operations.
  • Adopt a shift work policy to minimize the effects of fatigue.
  • Ensure that any newly installed computer controls are tested and calibrated before using them for startups.
  • Implement an essential rule to ensure that critical safety devices are not bypassed during troubleshooting, startups, and shutdowns.

Sadly, most organizations believe that tragic incidents such as the gas leak at the LG Polymer plant will not happen in their own plants, either through a false sense of hope or through unbridled confidence in their health and safety management systems. Many of the plants that had bitter experiences as cited above all had sufficient safety management systems in place. However, a system can only harness the knowledge and experience of people they employ. If the knowledge and experience in the organization and workforce happened to have been downsized, the system becomes only an empty shell. Without knowledge and experience, a system can achieve nothing. Downsizing cannot always be avoided, but we can ensure that the lessons of the past are remembered. In the recent case in Vizag, India, the lessons from the Bhopal tragedy had not been not remembered, but history had repeated itself.