Into the Unknown, Part 1: Safely Returning to Operations

Into the Unknown, Part 1: Safely Returning to Operations

By | October 26, 2020

Finding a pair of plastic gloves, a mask or a disposable wipe lying in the middle of the street is symbolic of how Safety, Sustainability and Productivity are intertwined. People have been using personal protective equipment (PPE) and disinfecting products in record numbers as the global pandemic continues, but those tools to keep people safe are also hurting the planet. Similarly, everything organizations do is interconnected. That’s why a focus on Safety, Sustainability and Productivity should always be top of mind, regardless of whether there’s a pandemic, a precipitous drop in oil prices or something else. As COVID-19 cases spike, especially in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, companies have a responsibility to do everything they can to make sure that any worker that walks through the front door can do so as safely as possible. In this series, Spark explores these three key areas that companies must address to create a safer, more sustainable and productive world. This article will focus on Safety. To be clear, Spark is not in any way advising companies to stop any remote work situations they are currently using, but if or when the time comes for workers to return, we simply want companies to do so safely.

Learn how COVID-19 has affected Sustainability and Productivity.

April 25, 2014, was a quiet, lazy evening in the Tehrani household.

I was sitting on the couch watching my beloved baseball team, the Chicago White Sox, play the Tampa Bay Rays. My wife and kids were upstairs.

The Sox and Rays were tied for most of the game.

In the top of the ninth inning the Rays scored two runs. It looked like the Sox were surely going to lose, but they mounted a dramatic comeback in the ninth inning topped off by a game-winning “grand slam” home run from then-rookie first baseman Jose Abreu, which set off fireworks and hysteria from Sox fans and players alike.

But I didn’t see any of that. In fact, I missed the last inning of the game.

That’s because there were fireworks of sorts going off near my house, too, but they certainly weren’t planned nor were they celebrated. I didn’t see them either, but I sure felt them.

About 20 minutes before the end of the game, our house shook violently. There was a weird din that seemed muffled like you sometimes hear in those tense scenes in war movies. I’d never experienced an earthquake firsthand, but this sure felt like it. I’m not sure how long the rattling lasted, but seconds felt like minutes.

My wife went to the top of the stairs to ask me what happened. I didn’t know what to say.

Was it actually an earthquake?

Did the large tree in our back yard fall on the house? It felt like the vibration had started in the back and worked its way forward, but a quick glance out the window proved that theory wrong. I still had no idea what caused the jarring vibrations.

I then looked outside and saw neighbors gathering in our cul-de-sac also trying to figure out what had happened. Eventually, someone shared the news: a house exploded into smithereens in a nearby suburb. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt, including a woman who lived in the house. She got out in a nick of time, but her home had been destroyed, and about 50 nearby houses were damaged as well.

The subdivision is five miles from my home. Five miles.

The explosion was caused by a natural gas leak, and news reports said the force was even felt 20 miles away. I can’t even imagine what it felt like for the people who lived close by.

The blast might have shaken the foundation of my house, but it shook me to the core.

Unfortunately, dangerous explosions occur far too often, especially in hazardous industries. Marsh keeps a list of the “100 Largest Losses” in the hydrocarbon industry over the past 42 years—everything from Piper Alpha to Deepwater Horizon and scores of other examples. In the past 20 years, according to Marsh, the combined losses from the largest refining and petrochemical events totaled some $28 billion (and $4.5 billion of the largest losses in the energy industry occurred between 2018 and 2019 alone).

The report challenges industry to pay attention to the common root causes of incidents, which include:

  • Safe systems of work, including shift handover, Management of Change and permitting
  • Inspections, particularly to mitigate asset integrity risks
  • Engineering standards, particularly the need to apply current standards to aging plants
  • Fixed fire protection availability
  • The adequacy of emergency response plans

In the first 10 years a plant is in operation, the report explains, most losses are caused by failures related to operations, and in plants that are at least 30 years old, “mechanical-integrity-related failures account for 65% of losses.”

As businesses return to operations or full operations as the case may be following a hiatus caused by COVID-19, companies face many challenges from keeping their workers safe from catching and spreading the virus to ensuring—especially for those companies in hazardous industries—they start up safely. And if a pandemic weren’t enough, the drop in oil prices has a profound effect on safety, particularly in the upstream Oil & Gas sector, where exploration and extraction take place.

As Marsh explained, “In the upstream sector, lower oil prices have led to the divestment by some of the oil majors of mature assets that are no longer giving a high rate of return on investment, as they develop projects in newer oil and gas producing regions. In many cases, this has led to older assets being taken over by smaller organizations, sometimes with limited previous corporate experience in the oil and gas sector.”

Industrial Incidents

This year, we’ve already seen a deadly gas leak at a chemical plant in India that killed at least a dozen people and injured 350 others; an explosion at a plastic factory near Naples, Italy, that killed one person and injured two others after the plant reopened; another blast at a Cape Town, South Africa, oil refinery, reportedly following an annual maintenance shutdown; and, of course, the massive explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, that appears to have been caused by the unsafe storage of aluminum nitrate. It reportedly killed about 200 people, injured thousands and left dozens of other people missing. A second fire at a warehouse near the port that occurred a month after the initial explosion luckily produced no reported injuries.


John Crosman

When we wrote about robots in 2018, John Crosman, Sphera’s senior process safety consultant, told me that, “I am never against tripping a process in the event there is the potential for a hazardous event, but tripping too early or too often inadvertently puts the plant into one of its most hazardous states—starting it back up again.”

For some reason, these words resonated with me as I began to write this article.

Unfortunately, so-called “black swan events,” meaning surprise incidents with potentially catastrophic results, are occurring more frequently in the hazardous industries, said Simon Jones, Sphera’s director of consulting for Operational Risk Management.


Simon Jones

Aging plants have a lot to do with that, and restarting aging or even newer plants after a shutdown can lead to dangerous consequences at worst and production delays at best if proper processes and protocols for starting up again aren’t in place. In other words, the 2020 “bingo card” has been tough enough with COVID-19, wildfires, etc.; you don’t want that number called as well. No one wants to think that such a catastrophic incident could happen to them, but as the Marsh report shows, these incidents continue to happen—and they are getting bigger and bigger.

“The last two years have been turbulent,” according to Marsh. “[E]ight property damage losses from 2018-19 were among the 50-largest energy losses of all time. Four recent losses were among the 20-largest losses ever.”

Based on results from Sphera’s “2020 Process Safety and Operational Risk Management Survey Report,” about half (49%) of those surveyed said they were not aware of their vulnerability to Major Accident Hazard (MAH) risk, and just over one-third of the respondents said their organization takes a proactive approach to managing process safety.

E-bookBuilding a Resilient Safety Strategy
As the pace of change accelerates, infrequent, incomplete inspections and outdated, siloed data will simply not be enough.

“In many ways, these are problems that are ripe for a digital solution today,” Jones said. “Greater resilience is needed in response to the unprecedented change driven by COVID-19 and the ongoing fluctuation in oil and commodity pricing and margins. Yet these changes have done little to alter the fundamental need for effective management of the safety, productivity and risk dynamic.”

Digital resilience, added Scott Lehmann, Sphera’s vice president of product management for Operational Risk Management, is about being prepared for “unexpected business shocks,” such as from COVID-19 or the precipitous drop in oil prices.


Scott Lehmann

If organizations had a solid plan in place in January 2020, they wouldn’t have to look back and ask themselves: “ ‘What if we had a more robust business continuity plan for our supply chains?’ ” Lehmann said. “ ‘How would things have been different? What if we had a little bit more expansive scenario planning and response? Could we have responded better? And if we actually had an Integrated Risk Management platform … how much better would we have been?”

Digitalization can, among other things, improve Safe Operations by:

  1. Driving policy into practice, standardizing work scope and being able to track and catalog hazards and mitigation processes through digital libraries of reusable, approved content.
  2. Maintaining compliance. With digital technologies, “workflow” compliance becomes inherent. Software can drive your defined mandatory approval flow. It represents an opportunity to focus less time on finding approval shortcut practices in the field and more time on improving the quality of what is done, including task risk assessments.
  3. Creating digital workflows that can also force critical control checks. For example, checking for acceptable gas test results for hot work before the permit can be issued or checking for fully in place and verified energy-free isolations before permits that require those isolations can be issued. Think of these as critical digital interlocks for worksite processes.
  4. Facilitating critical communications as handheld devices can be used in the field to facilitate easy data entry for operator shift “diaries,” which, in turn, support more complete shift handover practices. This minimizes the risk of critical information being lost.

As we wrote in Spark in fall 2019: IRM “is the intersection of process, progress and performance. It uses state-of-the-art technologies to gather and analyze data from a host of sources across an organization so companies can make more-informed, strategic business decisions to manage their risk while saving money in the process by eliminating time-consuming, inefficient data collection and ensuring machinery runs smoothly and efficiently among other things.”

Today, of course, risk mitigation with prescriptive and predictive capabilities relies on advanced software and technology to gather lots and lots of data, but that doesn’t mean risk analysis isn’t crucial as well. For decades, companies have used Process Hazard Analysis (PHAs), Hazard and Operability studies (HAZOPs), Layers of Protection Analysis (LOPA) and other studies, to find the areas most at risk in their plants and to figure out what could happen if something were to go wrong. After all, replacing just one valve could cause more headaches than conceived if that effective safeguard has been replaced by one that doesn’t, say, relieve pressure as quickly. It could also lead to a risk pathway developing that could cause more serious issues.

In Sphera’s recent PSM/ORM report, about a quarter of the respondents (26%) said risk increases between periodic risk studies, and another 13% said they weren’t sure.

PSM ORM report 2020

Since the pandemic took place, many companies have had to do their risk assessments via webinars and such. Doing an online study, “will never replace face-to-face, but it’s been going more successfully than we had thought when we first started,” Crosman said. “People held off for as long as they could hoping they would get back to work and be able to do these things in the traditional way, but after the first month or so people realized that wasn’t going to happen.”

While people have generally been focused and engaged during online assessments, Crosman said, “What we do find as a problem is, because everybody’s looking on a home monitor or a home screen and they’re not in the room with all the necessary documentation printed out in a nice big format so that everybody can see it and follow along, you never really know if people are looking at the right thing or following along as you might expect.”

Reading piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs) is especially challenging, he said, because “they’re all squished up” when viewed on a laptop.

But still the show, or in this case, the risk study, must go on.

One thing to keep in mind, explains Narenderpal Marwaha, Sphera’s principal architect for ORM, is that some companies cannot run operations remotely, but, during COVID-19 especially, it’s more likely there are fewer people working in the plants.


Narenderpal Marwaha

During normal times, there are normal operations, shutdowns and startups that the operators are used to, “but now there could be risks introduced because of reduced staffing that are just unforeseen,” Marwaha said.

This is why the Hierarchy of Controls, which was created by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is so important. In the inverted triangle, “Elimination” (physically removing the hazard) and “Substitution” (replacing the hazard) are considered the most effective ways to eliminate risk, and personal protective equipment is considered the least effective method of reducing incidents. That doesn’t mean PPE isn’t extremely important, but in terms of safeguards, it doesn’t eliminate the hazard, it just acts as a means to deal with the hazard, usually as a last resort when an individual is already exposed to it.

hierarchy of controls


And while companies deal with risk all the time, they don’t always deal with risk in real time. One key piece that complements the Hierarchy of Controls system is the adoption of digital technologies to help eliminate information silos and communicate risk throughout the organization.

Companies also don’t always plan for extremely unlikely events, such as a global pandemic, until they occur. But what if they do? And in the case of COVID-19, it did.

“You still have to run the same machine and the same equipment and the same operations,” Marwaha said. “It’s how quickly and effectively you’re going to flag and communicate the risk information that will help you to plan ahead, and at best help you prevent the hazard and at worst enable you to implement optimal mitigative measures in a timely manner.”

Keeping people safe is paramount, but reduced headcount because of COVID-19 could also impact operations. On the other end of the equation: “You’re adding a layer of the sanitization, ventilation, physical barriers and so forth as it pertains to preventing the spread of the virus, but if you’re looking at process safety,” companies must be mindful that some equipment might not be getting the same attention as it did before COVID-19 in terms of maintenance, repairs, etc., Marwaha said.

Noting that chemical plants and oil refineries, for instance, by and large have not fully shut down during COVID-19, Crosman said: “Getting back up to normal is going to be a challenge whether you stopped operating or you just reduced or cut back or whatever, but I don’t think we’re quite in the same situation as all those restaurant and retail owners out there who just shut down and everybody got sent home.”

Still, with so many people working from home and/or coming back to work, companies must also be able to assess COVID-19-related situations quickly.

There are various qualitative risk assessment techniques such as Process Hazards Analysis (PHA), What-If analysis, Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) and now Dynamic Risk Pathways that can be used for predicting potential hazards and identifying appropriate controls at the operational, system design and process design levels. The risk data generated by these tools can be extended through risk management digital technologies to predict, assess, flag, monitor and manage the risks of reduced staffing.

Staying safe in uncertain times might not be as exciting as hitting a game-winning home run, but removing any potential dramatics from the equation is the best way to really win the ballgame.

Learn how COVID-19 has affected Sustainability and Productivity.

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Sphera is the leading provider of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) performance and risk management software, data and consulting services with a focus on Environment, Health, Safety & Sustainability (EHS&S), Operational Risk Management and Product Stewardship.
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