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Petroleum Plant Safety

Published: 11th Mar 2013

It is estimated that the world consumes about 88 million barrels of petroleum, or crude oil, each day.

This is easy to understand – oil and gas resources, like petroleum, are a huge part of the world economy, as the majority of such products are used to produce energy. The world today is heavily dependent on petroleum for motive power, lubrication, fuel, dyes, drugs, and many synthetics.

One barrel of crude oil is the equivalent of 42 gallons (approximately 159 litres), and from this, refineries can produce around 19 gallons (72 litres) of motor gasoline and 10 gallons (38 litres) of diesel fuel, among other petroleum products. Concentrated in a small number of geographic regions around the globe, the world's oil and gas reserves are dominated by the Middle East. Of the world's 20 largest oil deposits, 13 are in the Middle East, with five deposits alone in Saudi Arabia, including the Ghawar field, the largest deposit in the world. These five countries –Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Kuwait – each produce more than two million barrels per day, contributing by far the largest proportion of regional production.

Several uses for petroleum

The petroleum industry includes the global processes of exploration, extraction, refining, transporting, and marketing petroleum products, with the largest volume products being oil and gasoline. Petroleum is also the raw material for many chemical products. Without petroleum, we wouldn’t have gasoline, kerosene, asphalt, some fertilisers, or some chemical regents used to make plastics and pharmaceuticals. Other products that are lesser known for their use of petroleum in their creation are crayons, ink, dishwashing liquids, deodorant, eyeglasses, CDs/DVDs, tyres, and heart valves.

Petroleum hazards

In order to provide such products that are part of our everyday lives, the widespread recovery and use of petroleum can be a very intensive and dangerous operation, employing hundreds of thousands of engineers, doctors, rig workers, transportation employees, and other professionals. In addition, the use of petroleum has created serious environmental problems: it is the largest industrial source of emissions for hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that both may contribute to health problems and other hazards. The great quantities of petroleum that are burned as fuels generate most of the air pollution in industrialised countries, and oil spilled from tankers and offshore wells has polluted oceans and coastlines.

With the extraction and use of petroleum come numerous regulations and safety concerns over potential hazards that could occur in such activities – and all employees in this field must have a good understanding of each subject.

Here are the top ten safety and environmental concerns over petroleum and a description of their best safety practises:

1. Preventing the release of chemical hazards

Petroleum is made up of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights and other liquid organic compounds, meaning the improper release of these chemicals may create a negative impact on the chemical’s surroundings.

Chemicals such as those in petroleum have the ability to react when exposed to other chemicals, or certain physical conditions. According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the United States, chemicals that are not properly managed can have harmful or even catastrophic consequences, such as toxic fumes, fires, and explosions that may result in injury and/or death, damage to physical property, and severe effects on the environment.

In order to ensure the safe release of chemicals, it is imperative that facilities are well designed, safely operated, and properly inspected and maintained. For example, the European Union requires that barges on all rivers in Europe are double-hull barges. It is also crucial that facilities involve an effective oil spill emergency response capability that plans, prepares, and practises emergency response to incidents to mitigate the consequences to the surrounding people and the environment.

2. Environmental pollution prevention

The exploration and exploitation activities of the petroleum industry often cause environmental degradation that has significant impact on quality of air, water, soil, vegetation, and on health unless adequate preventive measures are planned.

Petroleum activities encompass several sources of pollution including the exhaust of engines, generators or compressors, the discharge of natural gas directly into the atmosphere, and the increase in surrounding temperatures and glare effects due to flare. The cause of fugitive emissions at some facilities may be associated with vents, leaking pipes and turbines, valves, connections, pump seals, pressure relief valves, tanks, or open pits, and loading and unloading operations.

Exposure to petroleum-related pollutants may cause sickness or death that lead to human and economic loss, reduced visibility, unpleasant odours, damage to agricultural crops and plants, as well as harm to livestock.

To prevent the pollution of the environment from petroleum-related procedures and products, environmental awareness must be integrated as a part of every job function a worker performs. There are very specific rules and regulations regarding the amount and types of emissions, discharges, and disposals a facility is permitted. Make sure workers know and understand the physical and chemical properties of the materials they handle or are exposed to.

Any debris, spilled substances or material that could pose a potential hazard should be cleaned up immediately with proper procedures, which becomes even more critical if this substance can be exposed to rain water. For example, petroleum and other oil-related substances can wash away into surrounding vegetation and water systems.

3. Valve and pipeline safety

Pipelines are the most economical way to transport large quantities of oil, refined oil products, or natural gas over land and can be found all over the world. Nearly half a million miles of pipeline transporting natural gas, oil, and other hazardous liquids crisscross in the United States alone, and the USis ranked as only the third country in the world for oil production, with Saudi Arabia being number one.

A typical petroleum pipeline runs from the gathering area, into transmission lines, through compressor or pumping stations, to distribution lines, and finally to the end user. Since the majority of pipeline contents and their vapours are highly flammable, pipeline safety policies and procedures are focused on minimising worker exposure to these substances, and controlling or eliminating sources of ignition in the work environment.

To do this, the key issues to look at may include pipeline agency staff resources, automatic pipeline shutoff valves, penalties for safety violations, safety regulations for oil sands crudes, and the possible need for pipeline security regulations, as well as other concerns. In the United States, for example, federal regulations require pipeline operators to prepare emergency response plans for pipeline spills, and to make those plans available for inspection by the US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and local emergency response agencies.

Other industry recommended practises have been developed to improve and maintain the mechanical integrity of upstream pipelines. They are intended to assist upstream oil and gas producers in recognising the conditions that contribute to pipeline corrosion incidents, and identifying effective measures that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of corrosion incidents.

4. Personal protective equipment for workers

Danger can be found in just about every petroleum activity, from building well foundations and erecting lease tanks, to chemically treating or hydraulically fracturing wells. When preferred methods like engineering controls such as machine guards, or safe work practises are neither practical nor feasible, personal protective equipment (PPE) must be used to reduce workers’ exposure to potential hazards in the workplace. The employer is responsible for supplying the PPE, but the worker is responsible for assessing their job task to identify potential hazards that may require any necessary PPE – which they must also, of course, know how to wear correctly.

The general PPE requirements for oil and gas workers include: eyes, face, head and extremities, protective clothing, respiratory devices, and protective shields and barriers. In the United States, OSHA requires oil and gas companies to apply safety standards to both their employees and any contractors or other visitors to the site. Employers are also required by OSHA to reassess on the job hazards and decide whether new PPE is needed each year.

In addition to the need for strong protection against all of these potential perils, it is best if workers are able to work comfortably in their protective garments for their entire shift. Comfort is essential – the PPE will often need to be worn securely throughout the day without giving irritation. The correct choice of hearing protection, for example, can avoid the danger of workers removing it due to discomfort, exposing their ears to damaging noise. As the employer, it is also important to be able to provide a range of protectors so that employees can choose the one that suits them best.

5. Hazardous waste disposal

The American Petroleum Institute (API) estimates that for every foot drilled in the United States, approximately 1.21 barrels of total drilling waste are generated, with nearly 50% of the total being solid drilling waste. Over the course of a year, this massive accumulation of solid drilling waste by volume is equal to approximately 139,961,305 barrels, which is equivalent to 29,097,984 cubic yards of solid drilling waste – enough to fill almost 9,000 Olympic swimming pools.

All of this type of waste needs to be properly recycled or disposed of, and applicable regulations followed in order to keep the environment and the surrounding human and animal inhabitants healthy. Waste oil can be disposed of in different ways, including sending the used oil off site, burning used oil as a fuel, and marketing the used oil.

When sending the used oil off site, waste needs to be treated very carefully. All waste materials must be placed in a sealable container that will not react to the waste that will be placed inside, and be cautious of mixing different wastes. All containers must be labelled with the critical information clearly visible. Periodic checks are also required during transportation and storage.

6. Corrosion problems and prevention

It is almost impossible to prevent corrosion. The next best possible solution is to attempt to control the corrosion rate through monitoring. By recognising and understanding the mechanisms involved in corrosion, engineers may begin to eliminate corrosion by design.

Offshore structures are especially at risk of corrosion from the massive amounts of rain, condensation, sea mist, and spray. To provide long term resistance to corrosion, Corrosion Resistant Alloys (CRAs) are essential for many components exposed to oil and gas production environments, including offshore rigs. Components may include down-hole tubing and safety critical elements, wellhead (structural and pressure-containing interface) components and valves, pipelines, piping, valves, vessels, heat exchangers and many other pieces of equipment in facilities that can be characterised by their resistance to specific environments.

7. Hazardous material security

Every day, thousands of tons of hazardous materials are safely transported by plane, truck, train, and ship in quantities ranging from several ounces to thousands of gallons. All over the world, employees working to transport hazardous materials, such as petroleum and crude oil waste, are working with their government to improve the security of such materials in their transportation system, and must be properly trained in packing, shipping, and the security of dangerous goods.

To provide the foundation for all countries to develop comprehensive national programmes to ensure the safe use of chemicals, in 2012 the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) was released to strengthen international efforts in classifying and communicating hazardous chemicals. The basic goal of GHS is to provide adequate, practical, reliable, and comprehensible information on the hazards of chemicals to ensure preventive and protective measures for health and safety are taken around the world, benefiting governments, companies, workers, and members of the public.

Chemical manufacturers and importers will be required to provide a label that includes a harmonised signal word, pictogram, and hazard statement for each hazard class and category. Precautionary statements must also be provided.

8. Process safety management

Petroleum processing facilities and extraction locations must have a comprehensive management programme that integrates technologies, procedures, and management practises in a careful review of what could go wrong and what safeguards must be implemented to prevent releases of hazardous chemicals. Unexpected releases of toxic, reactive, or flammable liquids and gases in processes involving highly hazardous chemicals have been reported for many years in the oil and gas industry, which uses chemicals with such properties. Regardless of the industry that uses these highly hazardous chemicals, there is the potential for an accidental release any time they are not properly controlled, creating the possibility for disaster.

9. Heavy machinery safety

The use of heavy machinery is not only prevalent in the oil and gas industry, but it is also an essential tool needed to get a diverse number of jobs done. The type of equipment used in this industry varies from earthmoving machines in lease preparation for explorative drilling to site preparation for large refineries and plant sites. It also includes hoisting equipment, including forklifts and cranes, as well as trenching equipment.

While it is true that machines can greatly increase the efficiency and ease of many work related tasks, they can also pose a significant threat of injury or even death when poorly maintained or used improperly. Operations with heavy equipment should always be done by highly skilled operators who have demonstrated the ability and necessary skills to operate safely. Ground based workers should be trained in how to work safely around the equipment and how to stay clear. Unsafe practises by either the operator or those around the equipment can create very dangerous situations where serious injuries can occur if the equipment strikes a worker, or if the equipment rolls over.

10. Emergency preparedness

Oil and gas workers are subject to some of the most hazardous industrial conditions in the world. Given the number of people employed by the gas and oil industry and the dangerous nature of oil and gas drilling, it is almost inevitable that accidents will occur. Oil and gas accidents can involve explosions, incidents while raising a pipeline, oil rig and derrick safety violations, and other incidents, including:

• Drilling accidents

• Improper construction and maintenance

• Pipeline transportation accidents

• Storage problems, including contamination

• Salt dome accidents

Because of such accidents, it is essential to have an emergency plan or management system that will allow for a timely response to an accident. This includes establishing a decision framework and action plan that enables a quick and effective response to any accident or incident, as well as working with the relevant local and national authorities, ensuring workers have the appropriate training, and practising exercise drills with other organisations. To signify the importance of such plans and to prevent devastating accidents, the Energy Committee in Europe has proposed that offshore oil and gas firms would have to submit major hazard reports and emergency response plans before getting a license to drill.

Growing industry with growing injuries

Understanding the affects of petroleum in the oil and gas refineries and plants around the world is essential to uncover the risks of what workers may face and already are facing on the job. The level of activity in the petroleum industry has grown in recent years, resulting in an increase in employment and a corresponding increase in both the number and rate of fatal occupational injuries.

Because of the several upstream activities that the oil and gas industry performs, it is inevitable that the occasional accident may result from the on and offshore exploration and production, transportation, storage, and refining of petroleum. This happens most often when inexperienced workers are not sufficiently trained in safety and precautionary measures, with the most common types of injuries being burns, brain injury, spinal injury and fractures.

Remember, preventing accidents, protecting your health, and protecting the environment depend on recognising potential hazards in your workplace, especially when hazardous chemicals like petroleum are involved.

Hazards can exist due to the nature of the task being performed, where it is being performed, and the equipment or material involved. Follow best safety practises to lower the potential hazards to the industrial plant, its employees, and people living nearby.

Published: 11th Mar 2013 in Health and Safety Middle East

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