The Special Challenges of Shutdowns and Turnarounds
From time to time, industrial facilities need to undergo major repairs or renovations. They can involve everything from retooling to accommodate a new product line, to replacement of key components as part of a preventive maintenance effort, to the installation of new environmental controls, to a complete overhaul of the entire operation.
When faced with major changes, the managers of many of these facilities will often completely close down operations so they can accomplish as much work as possible in the shortest possible time. These projects have different names, depending upon the industry, but they are most often known as shutdowns, outages, or turnarounds.
Even on sites in which the safety culture is very healthy, shutdowns, outages, and turnarounds create significant safety challenges for a number of reasons, primarily the sheer amount of work being completed at one time. That normally means that large numbers of outside contractors will appear on the site, performing tasks that are a huge departure from what takes place on a day-to-day basis.
Most of those contractors have probably not been on the site before, so they may not be familiar with the facility and the safety standards. Others will have differing levels of familiarity with safety practices for the work that will be performed. The prequalification process will help to identify where gaps in knowledge may be present, but that’s just a starting point in managing the safety aspects of the site. Prequalification isn’t foolproof, either.
Take a major turnaround project I worked on for an oil refinery. Aside from the tank farm area, the entire refinery was completely shut down for a six-to-eight-week period. At any given time during that process, we had between 3,000 and 4,000 contractors on the site 24 hours a day. Beyond the normal hazards of an operation with many volatile atmospheres, much of the work took place inside confined spaces such as vessels, and in specialized situations such as nitrogen atmospheres.
The safety team had to verify that contractors working in those areas had the right training and certifications for the particular tasks they would handle. While the contracting firms had been prequalified, we didn’t take those matters for granted. Instead, we pulled training records and other documentation to verify that everyone was up-to-date. Then we took it a step further by taking audits in the field.
For example, we would walk up to workers and ask them questions about their fire extinguishers. Did they check to see if they were still properly pressurized? We’d quiz them about issues related to confined space entry, and if they didn’t seem to know what they were talking about, we investigated further. Our role was to ensure that nobody got hurt on the site, and prevention is the most effective way to do that.
Another key role for the safety professionals was hazard analysis. The scope and schedule of the project meant that a new set of hazards was being created every day throughout the site, and we had to be able to document them and ensure that workers were prepared. Beyond the planned tasks, we had to react when unexpected situations arose, such as a piece of high-pressure equipment becoming stuck, or a contractor discovering a surprise inside a vessel or pipe.
Further complicating a project of this size is the fact that much of the work takes place outside, so weather is a significant factor related to safe working conditions, as well as what happens if there is an unintentional spill or release of chemicals.
Finally, in my experience, project engineers do a great job of anticipating and planning for a wide variety of contingencies on a shutdown or turnaround. Unfortunately, that planning doesn’t always hold up on the worksite, and contractors frequently find themselves having to improvise. Each deviation from the original plans creates a need for the safety professional to rethink the situation and ensure that everyone is properly protected.
For a safety professional, a project of this scope can be the greatest, most complex challenge and success of a career. But every step and every aspect goes back to the most basic practices and philosophies of industrial safety. By taking time to ensure that each step is handled properly, and by making a thorough review of every aspect of safety, safety professionals can help to ensure that the project meets the desired goals, stays on budget and the timeline, and is completed without injuries to any of the workers. It’s exhausting, but very satisfying.