A landmark study of 500 petrochemical companies found that 50% of accidents happened during 10% of operational time. Fully half of all safety compromises were taking place during a small sliver of activities.

So, what were these riskiest 10% of activities? They were anything that happened during transient conditions – times when materials or equipment are in the process of transitioning between states.

A transient condition occurs, for example, when an oil rig worker disconnects a high-pressure hose from one valve and connects it to another. It occurs when a vacuum truck starts pumping liquid. It occurs when refinery equipment enters a new phase of operation.

For example, look at the explosion that took place during routine testing at Connecticut’s Kleen Energy plant. Everything in the plant was brand new, and equipment was simply being tested before the building’s grand opening. The explosion happened during the transient condition of a system power down/power up.

Why is Transition So Risky?

It would be easy to assume that transient conditions are hazardous simply because they cause disruptions and movement. While those things are contributors, research shows there are other, more compelling causes.

Lack of Practice

A big issue: inexperience. About 90% of the daily activity at an oil refinery or power plant occurs in steady state operations, where workers are mostly concerned with maintaining the flow of what’s already happening. So transitional phases are simply less frequently encountered, giving workers less experience dealing with them.

By-Hand Solutions

Another cause is humans stepping in to replace what are normally non-human operations. This happens during clogs, for example. After unclogging steps have been taken, and the typical machine-operated procedures haven’t worked, a desperate worker might clean something out by hand, causing a leak or explosion.

Winging It

Workers also encounter all kinds of situations that require them to wing it – to make decisions on the fly, without complete information. In high-pressure moments, people do things that would be hard to predict. One study of ExxonMobil sites found that these abnormal and unplanned operations tended to push people and equipment beyond the normal bounds of safety, into situations with alarms, emergency actions, and loss-of-containment events.     

Poor Safety Culture

Normal conditions can also disguise a risky environment, which some experts call “abnormally normal.” If a company has a culture of ignoring safety risks, allowing hazards to continue, and pretending everything is in order, things will seem fine until the moment of a disaster – which is exactly what happened in the devastating Deepwater Horizon spill.

Transitioning With Technology

Here’s a silver lining to the 10%/50% issue: Dangerous situations mostly take place in predictable locations, and they’re usually manageable if reported. This means that when a risky situation occurs, safety staff can quickly take care of the problem as long as it is reported immediately.

Immediacy is something the energy industry struggles with. Many companies still use old-fashioned paper observation cards to report hazardous issues. Some force workers to fill out long, frustrating forms, which are totally useless in urgent situations.

By contrast, look at a speed-focused solution like FirstHand by Zeteky. It’s a mobile app that allows on-site workers to report issues with just a few clicks. A hazard can be addressed within moments, before it becomes a catastrophe.

Could your company use a tech solution like this? Let us know, and learn more about FirstHand by requesting a free demo.