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Refinery Fire and Explosion Safety: Hazards and Challenges with Aging Infrastructure

Written by Clint Mooney on April 10, 2018

North America’s energy infrastructure is old - very old. About 35% of gas gathering and transmission pipelines were built before 1960 and another 35% were built between 1960 and 1980, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. A terrifying 12% of our pipelines were built around 1940 and have never been upgraded, yet remain in heavy use.

In fact, our oil and gas infrastructure is literally crumbling, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. During the 2015 Quadrennial Energy Review, Moniz advocated a sense of urgency about investing in infrastructure updates. It’s the best way, he said, to address persistent safety threats and “remain the greatest nation on Earth.”

 

Oil and Gas Safety Talks

 

Where Safety Meets Reality

However, fixing the country’s aging infrastructure is a massively expensive and time-consuming task. That’s why the issue has been kicked down the line by government officials, decade after decade.

For its part, the oil and gas industry has taken huge steps toward better safety - reducing worker injuries and fatalities by 10% decade-over-decade - but still struggles with the infrastructure issue. It’s challenging to monitor and address pipeline safety issues in big operations that are far-flung across the world.

Fire and explosions are constant concerns. Oil and gas operations face risks like:

  • Fires from flammable vapors, well gases, and chemicals
  • Containment explosions in wells and underground spaces
  • Surface explosions on trucks, production equipment, tanks, and shale shakers
  • Spark and ignition potential from things like static, friction, electrical energy, lightning, tools, naked flames, gas release, and exposed electrical boxes and wires

 

Recognizing and Controlling Hazards

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provide guidance that helps the oil and gas industry cope with these hazards. The OSHA/NIOSH Fire and Explosion Safety page is a great resource for proper safety procedures.

Industry experts also point to best practices in the industry that limit fire and explosion risk. These include:

  • Tracking the age of equipment and machines and never exceeding expected life limits
  • Investment in newer, safer oil rigs, floating production storage and offloading (FSPO) and jack-ups, instead of recycled and reconditioned equipment
  • Careful retrofitting and modifications to suit individual geographic and safety conditions
  • Use of fire water systems, fire pumps, and fixed deluge systems that meet or exceed safety standards
  • Constant monitoring of spark and ignition sources
  • Acquisition of all required permits
  • Keeping an organized and clean work site
  • Establishing a culture of constant vigilance, rather than indifference or “It will never happen here” attitude
  • Willingness to learn from the mistakes of the past, like Deepwater Horizon and Piper Alpha.
  • Openness to new technology that assists with monitoring and safety.

 

Safety, Powered by Technology

The FirstHand app by Zeteky helps oil and gas companies prevent fires and explosions. Workers can use their mobile phones to report all kinds of safety issues, so safety staff can act swiftly to halt hazards.

Let’s take a quick look at a common scenario. According to oil and gas industry expert Shaun Liddle, the biggest cause of fire on offshore rigs is sparks. Imagine that one of your workers notices an open electrical box with a loose, dangling wire. It could spark at any moment.

In this situation, the worker can open FirstHand, upload a hazard report, and include a geographic pinpoint or even a photo. The report is instantly routed to a safety supervisor, who dispatches someone to fix the electrical problem right away. The spark risk is addressed, and there’s better work site safety for the entire operation.

See how FirstHand can help protect your company from fires and explosions.

Click here to request a demo.

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