Hazards During Transient Operations at Oil Refineries

by | Jun 19, 2023 | Maritime Law, Offshore Accident, Oil and Gas Accident, Oil Refinery Injuries, Workplace Explosion, Workplace Safety

The oil and gas industry is key to the economy in Texas, and throughout the United States. It is well known that there are risks and hazards to working in oil refineries. Unfortunately, investigative reports on recent incidents suggest that human error is a contributing factor to many incidents that cause injury to workers.

Recently, the petrochemical lawyers at Kherkher Garcia, LLP reviewed the investigative report from the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) relating to the 2018 fire and explosion at the Husky Energy refinery in Superior, Wisconsin. The report suggests an urgent need for more stringent safety standards and protocols during transient operations.

Chemical Safety Board Video Highlights Hazards of Transient Operations and Processes

The CSB recently released a video related to the 2018 fire and explosion at the Husky Energy refinery in Wisconsin. The video describes several deficiencies that the CSB found during the subsequent investigation that “directly contributed” to the fire and explosion.

In the final investigative report, the CSB made 16 recommendations addressed to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the American Petroleum Institute, the Husky refinery, and two additional energy companies. The recommendations are directly related to transient processes and Process Safety Management (PSM) standards.

CSB lead investigator, Melike Yersiz said,

“To prevent catastrophic incidents, companies should ensure that their PSM systems are effective at identifying, evaluating and controlling process hazards – not just during normal operations, but during transient operations, as well.”

What are Transient Processes at Oil Refineries?

Transient processes are those that occur over a short period of time and involve a significant change in the state of the system. In oil refineries, transient processes can be caused by a variety of factors, such as:

  • Startups and Shutdowns: When an oil refinery is started up or shut down, there is a period of time during which the system is not in a steady state. This can lead to transients, such as pressure spikes or temperature excursions.
  • Changes in Feed Rate of Composition: If the feed rate or composition of the crude oil to an oil refinery changes, this can also cause transients. For example, if the feed rate is increased, the system may not be able to handle the increased load, which can lead to pressure spikes.
  • Equipment Failures: If equipment fails in an oil refinery, this can also cause transients. For example, if a pump fails, the flow of liquid through the system will be disrupted, which can lead to pressure spikes or temperature excursions.

Transient processes can be hazardous, as they can lead to equipment damage, fires, or explosions. Therefore, it is important to carefully plan and manage transients in oil refineries. This includes using appropriate procedures and training employees on how to handle transients safely.

What are the Potential Hazards During Transient Processes?

Transient processes in oil refineries can pose several hazards. Here are some potential hazards associated with transient processes:

Pressure Surges

Transient processes can result in sudden pressure changes within the refinery equipment and pipelines. These pressure surges can lead to equipment failures, ruptures, leaks, and explosions if the system is not designed to handle such fluctuations.

Thermal Stress

Rapid temperature changes during transient processes can cause thermal stress on refinery equipment and piping systems. This stress can lead to metal fatigue, cracking, and potential failures, compromising the integrity of the equipment.

Flammable Vapor Release

Transient operations involving opening or closing valves, changes in flow rates, or system upsets can release flammable gases and vapors. If not properly managed, these releases can ignite, leading to fires or explosions.

Contamination and Chemical Reactions

Transient processes may result in unintended mixing of incompatible substances, such as different types of crude oil or process fluids. This can trigger unexpected chemical reactions, including exothermic reactions, which may release toxic gases, generate heat, or cause equipment corrosion.

Loss of Containment

Rapid changes in fluid flow rates and pressure can increase the risk of leaks or spills, leading to the loss of hazardous materials. These releases can pose environmental hazards, contaminate soil and water bodies, and potentially harm human health.

Equipment Overload

Transient events can cause sudden increases in fluid flow, pressure, or temperature beyond the design limits of equipment, such as pumps, compressors, or heat exchangers. This overload can result in mechanical failures or equipment damage.

Process Upsets

Changes in process conditions during transients, such as variations in feed composition, can affect the stability of the refining processes. Uncontrolled reactions, unexpected changes in reaction rates, or loss of control over process parameters can lead to process upsets, reduced product quality, or even shutdowns.

Human Error

Transient operations require careful monitoring, control, and response to changes. Human error, such as incorrect operation of equipment or failure to follow proper procedures, can exacerbate the hazards associated with transients.

How Can Oil Refineries Reduce the Risk of Transient Process Hazards?

Oil refineries can employ several strategies to mitigate the risks associated with transient processes. Here are some common measures:

Robust Design

Refineries should ensure that the design of equipment, pipelines, and systems can handle transient conditions. This includes selecting materials with appropriate strength and corrosion resistance, considering pressure and temperature fluctuations, and incorporating safety features like pressure relief valves.

Process Monitoring and Control

Continuous monitoring of process parameters, such as pressure, temperature, flow rates, and levels, is crucial to detect and respond to transient events. Advanced process control systems can help maintain stable conditions by adjusting operating parameters in real-time and preventing abnormal operations.

Safety Instrumented Systems (SIS)

SIS are independent systems that monitor critical process variables and take automatic actions to bring the process to a safe state in the event of a transient or abnormal condition. These systems can include emergency shutdown systems, high/low-pressure alarms, temperature limiters, and other safety interlocks.

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

Clear and well-defined SOPs should be in place for transient operations, covering start-up, shutdown, and other transitional phases. Operators should be trained on these procedures, emphasizing the importance of following established protocols to minimize risks.

Operator Training and Competence

Proper training and competency assessment programs should be implemented to ensure that operators have the necessary skills and knowledge to safely manage transient processes. This includes training on process understanding, equipment operation, emergency response, and the ability to recognize and respond to abnormal conditions.

Maintenance and Inspection

Regular inspection, maintenance, and testing of equipment and instrumentation are crucial to identify potential issues before they escalate during transient events. This includes routine checks for leaks, corrosion, and equipment integrity, as well as calibration of safety devices.

Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment

Conducting thorough hazard identification and risk assessments can help identify potential hazards associated with transient processes. This includes analyzing potential consequences, determining the likelihood of occurrence, and implementing appropriate control measures to reduce risks.

Emergency Preparedness and Response

Oil refineries should have comprehensive emergency response plans in place, including procedures for responding to transient-related incidents. This includes clear communication protocols, evacuation plans, training on emergency equipment operation, and coordination with external emergency response organizations.

Continuous Improvement and Lessons Learned

Refineries should foster a culture of continuous improvement by actively learning from past incidents, near misses, and industry best practices. Sharing and implementing lessons learned can help identify vulnerabilities and implement appropriate corrective measures.

By implementing these measures, oil refineries can significantly reduce the risks associated with transient processes, enhance operational safety, and protect personnel, assets, and the environment.

What Should I do After an Oil Refinery Injury?

If you are injured while working in an oil refinery, it is important to take the correct steps to get medical care and document your injuries. It is also important to understand your legal rights and the options you may have to recover compensation. Refinery workers may be covered by workers’ compensation or be eligible for compensation under maritime law.

To best protect yourself and your legal rights, there are some things you can do after an injury:

  1. Seek Medical Attention: Even if you don’t think your injury is serious, it is important to have a doctor assess your injuries. Some injuries, such as exposure to hazardous chemicals, may not show symptoms immediately.
  2. Report the Injury: This is important for several reasons. First, it helps to ensure that the injury is properly documented. Second, it allows the company to investigate the incident and take steps to prevent similar injuries from happening in the future.
  3. Record the Incident: This includes taking pictures of your injuries, if possible, and writing down a detailed description of what happened. This record will be helpful if you need to file a workers’ compensation claim or take legal action.
  4. Contact a Lawyer: If you believe that your injury was caused by the negligence of your employer or another party, you may want to contact a lawyer. A lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and options.

Talk to a Petrochemical Injury Lawyer in Houston

If you have been injured in an oil refinery accident, contact the petrochemical injury lawyers at Kherkher Garcia. We know how devastating accidents at oil refineries are for those involved, and for their loved ones. We have successfully obtained compensation for oil and gas workers injured due to fires, explosions, mechanical failures, and more.

Our lawyers have more than 30 years of experience, and have recovered billions of dollars for our clients. Find out how we can help you obtain the compensation that you deserve. Get started with a free consultation by calling us at 713-333-1030.

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Steve Kherkher

Steve Kherkher

Founding Partner and Trial Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Injury Trial Lawyer and Founding Firm Partner Steve Kherkher. Steve has been a practicing injury lawyer for more than 30 years. He has won $300 Million+ in Settlements and Verdicts for his clients. He is a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom and the trial lawyer you want on your side if you or a loved one have been catastrophically injured.

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