The Dangers of Refinery Turnarounds

A turnaround is a planned shutdown during which a unit or site undergoes maintenance, overhaul and/or repairs, and therefore primarily involves personnel who will have a higher exposure to chemicals and risk than those involved in day to day operations (Kreider et al., 2010). Due to the cost of a complete turnaround operation, most turnarounds are limited to a unit(s) with in a plant. Meaning that a site used to having 800 employees on site during the day, may now find itself inhabited by almost 3,000 employees and contractors the next day.

A 2016 study found that personal exposure to benzene was higher during facility turnaround operations than exposure during normal operations (Akerstrom et. Al., 2016). This is because there are now more people on site, and most of them are engaged in non-standard operations, such as cleaning, flushing and repairing equipment. This only further increases the risk of an incident occurring during a turnaround.

A recent incident occurred on December 1st, 2016, an enormous fireball erupted at the Sannazzaro de’ Burgondi refinery near Milan, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air. The thick, black smoke spewing from the facility could be seen some six miles away. Owned by state oil company ENI, the 200,000 barrels-a-day refinery was 24 days into a 30-day scheduled turnaround.

Luckily, no one was injured in the blast, which is still under investigation. But in the United States alone, at least 58 people have been confirmed to have died on refineries between March 2005 and March 2015. Unfortunately, the exact number of deaths at refineries is unclear, since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics did not track contractors’ deaths at refineries until 2011 (Malewitz et. al., 2015). Coincidentally more and more often contractors handle the bulk of industrial turnaround operations

Unfortunately, the most dangerous time in turnaround is towards the end, when units are being brought back online. That was the case in 2005, when 15 workers were killed and more than 180 injured at the end of a complicated, nine-week turnaround operation at a massive Texas City, refinery.  The disaster began when the giant steel isomerization unit was restarted after two weeks of being offline. The resulting deaths highlight the persistent dangers of refinery turnarounds, which often require new workers to come in and perform tasks that are outside the scope of day-to-day operations.

Risks are inevitable in the turnaround process.  And even though planners generally schedule these events during periods of low production, they cannot predict, nor abate all of the risks and effects caused by an outage.  To understand why the process is so high-risk, one must fully understand the demands placed on those who oversee the actions.

A routine turnaround deviates from the normal scope of work, and often requires an influx of temporary workers to complete all tasks.  A complete turnaround may entail up to 30,000 procedures, creating a spike in the number of risks that need to be managed and mitigated (Cappielo & Cook, 2005). Human error is amplified with the confluence of change-related factors, including excessive overtime, shift rotation, rapidly changing plant configurations, organizational changes, and other emergent tasks. Even the best planner cannot alleviate all risks from turnaround activities.  However, adequate planning helps to minimize the risks.  Safety must be imbedded in the company’s code of ethics and culture.

Along with the complexity of most turnarounds is the pressure to complete them in a timely manner. The effects of a turnaround can be felt far beyond the perimeter of one facility. When a refinery goes through a turnaround, it usually affects the fuel supply in a particular region, aggravating the balance of supply and demand. Lower supplies of fuel mean that fuel prices will increase for wholesalers as well as consumers. Every day an offshore facility, refinery, chemical plant, or wind turbine does not operate at full capacity, companies stand to lose anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars in potential revenue.

Neste Oil in July of 2010 announced that year over year their second quarter earnings fell from 61 million USD to 6.5 million USD, after they carried out the largest turnaround in Porvoo refinery’s history (Peckham, 2010). Consequently, if the process takes as little as one day more than planned, the costs could be significant. This puts pressure on turnaround managers to ensure that all scheduling, budgeting, labor and testing is completed on schedule. The entire process is intense and often chaotic, thus escalating the likelihood of error.  Beyond the sheer economics, turnarounds present additional safety and environmental, risks that must be managed and mitigated.

Based on the numerous reports produced post-turnarounds, the leading risk in this process is simply human error. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has also called out deficiencies in refinery safety culture, weak industry standards for safeguarding equipment, lack of application of inherent safety principles, insufficient construction materials, as among the root causes of deadly turnaround accidents. Other post-mortem reports trace numerous accidents back to violations involving incomplete and improper implementation of policies and procedures, workers failing to comply with safety processes, improperly inspected equipment, failures to report significant hazards, and poor communication to name just a few.

Safety and effective communication must parallel one another to ensure that best practices are implemented and enforced. Some common best practices include: creating a proper project control solution, including a scope management system and change management process; adding a tracking component for expenses, and implementing a method for budget management. Setting up temporary and mobile sensors on the boundary of turnaround operations is also recommended, helping adding an extra level of protection in areas where an unusually high number of workers will be present. Ideally, each of these components should be measured daily.

A proper facility shutdown can result in tremendous benefits across an organization.  Performing the necessary maintenance, repairs and upgrades can create a competitive advantage for organizations, increasing their commercial production and performance, while also creating a healthy environment for those involved in the process. It also gives workers something to celebrate, knowing that their facility has undergone the necessary measures to ensure that it is producing the best product in the best environment possible.

However, the downside can be devastating. Since most companies are most likely operating with fewer workers performing more functions, the probability of an accident occurring is even greater than at any other time in the past. Ensuring effective communication and enforcing best practices across all parameters of management team, workers, stakeholders and customers can minimize the risks involved with one of the most “necessary evils” in refineries — turnarounds.

References:

  1. Akerstrom, M., Almerud, P., Andersson, E.M., Strandberg, G., & Sallsten, G., (2016) Personal exposure to benzene and 1,3‑butadiene during petroleum refinery turnarounds and work in the oil harbor. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health. 89(8):1289-1297. doi:10.1007/s00420-016-1163-1
  2. Cappiello, D., & Cook, L. (2005) What Happened: Plant turnarounds proven dangerous. Houston Chronicle. 104(163), A18.
  3. Kreider ML, Unice KM, Panko JM et al (2010) Benzene exposure in refinery workers: ExxonMobil Joliet, Illinois, USA (1977–2006). Toxicol Industrial Health, 26(10):671–690. doi:10.1177/0748233710378115
  4. Malewitz, J., McCullough, J., Hasson, B., & Olsen, L. (2015) A Deadly Industry: Assembled data shows how and where U.S. refinery workers continue to die. EHS Today. Retrieved from: http://ehstoday.com/safety/deadly-industry
  5. Peckham, J. (2010) Refinery turnaround hurts Nestle Oil 2Q profit; diesel outlook improves. Diesel Fuel News. 14(32):10-11.
  6. Price, T. (2005) What Went Wrong: Oil Refinery Disaster. Popular Mechanic. Retrieved from: http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/a295/1758242/

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