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Introduction to Chemical Process Safety

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As chemical process technology becomes more complex, chemical engineers will need a more detailed and fundamental understanding of safety. The authors of this book set out the fundamentals of chemical process safety in this introduction.
This chapter is from the book

In 1987, Robert M. Solow, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received the Nobel Prize in economics for his work in determining the sources of economic growth. Professor Solow concluded that the bulk of an economy's growth is the result of technological advances.

It is reasonable to conclude that the growth of an industry is also dependent on technological advances. This is especially true in the chemical industry, which is entering an era of more complex processes: higher pressure, more reactive chemicals, and exotic chemistry.

More complex processes require more complex safety technology. Many industrialists even believe that the development and application of safety technology is actually a constraint on the growth of the chemical industry.

As chemical process technology becomes more complex, chemical engineers will need a more detailed and fundamental understanding of safety. H. H. Fawcett said, "To know is to survive and to ignore fundamentals is to court disaster."1 This book sets out the fundamentals of chemical process safety.

Since 1950, significant technological advances have been made in chemical process safety. Today, safety is equal in importance to production and has developed into a scientific discipline that includes many highly technical and complex theories and practices. Examples of the technology of safety include

  • Hydrodynamic models representing two-phase flow through a vessel relief
  • Dispersion models representing the spread of toxic vapor through a plant after a release, and
  • Mathematical techniques to determine the various ways that processes can fail and the probability of failure

Recent advances in chemical plant safety emphasize the use of appropriate technological tools to provide information for making safety decisions with respect to plant design and operation.

The word "safety" used to mean the older strategy of accident prevention through the use of hard hats, safety shoes, and a variety of rules and regulations. The main emphasis was on worker safety. Much more recently, "safety" has been replaced by "loss prevention." This term includes hazard identification, technical evaluation, and the design of new engineering features to prevent loss. The subject of this text is loss prevention, but for convenience, the words "safety" and "loss prevention" will be used synonymously throughout.

Safety, hazard, and risk are frequently used terms in chemical process safety. Their definitions are

  • Safety or loss prevention: the prevention of accidents through the use of appropriate technologies to identify the hazards of a chemical plant and eliminate them before an accident occurs.
  • Hazard: a chemical or physical condition that has the potential to cause damage to people, property, or the environment.
  • Risk: a measure of human injury, environmental damage, or economic loss in terms of both the incident likelihood and the magnitude of the loss or injury.

Chemical plants contain a large variety of hazards. First, there are the usual mechanical hazards that cause worker injuries from tripping, falling, or moving equipment. Second, there are chemical hazards. These include fire and explosion hazards, reactivity hazards, and toxic hazards.

As will be shown later, chemical plants are the safest of all manufacturing facilities. However, the potential always exists for an accident of catastrophic proportions. Despite substantial safety programs by the chemical industry, headlines of the type shown in Figure 1-1 continue to appear in the newspapers.

Figure 1-1

Figure 1-1 Headlines are indicative of the public's concern over chemical safety.

1-1 Safety Programs

A successful safety program requires several ingredients, as shown in Figure 1-2. These ingredients are

  • System
  • Attitude
  • Fundamentals
  • Experience
  • Time
  • You
Figure 1-2

Figure 1-2 The ingredients of a successful safety program.

First, the program needs a system (1) to record what needs to be done to have an outstanding safety program, (2) to do what needs to be done, and (3) to record that the required tasks are done. Second, the participants must have a positive attitude. This includes the willingness to do some of the thankless work that is required for success. Third, the participants must understand and use the fundamentals of chemical process safety in the design, construction, and operation of their plants. Fourth, everyone must learn from the experience of history or be doomed to repeat it. It is especially recommended that employees (1) read and understand case histories of past accidents and (2) ask people in their own and other organizations for their experience and advice. Fifth, everyone should recognize that safety takes time. This includes time to study, time to do the work, time to record results (for history), time to share experiences, and time to train or be trained. Sixth, everyone (you) should take the responsibility to contribute to the safety program. A safety program must have the commitment from all levels within the organization. Safety must be given importance equal to production.

The most effective means of implementing a safety program is to make it everyone's responsibility in a chemical process plant. The older concept of identifying a few employees to be responsible for safety is inadequate by today's standards. All employees have the responsibility to be knowledgeable about safety and to practice safety.

It is important to recognize the distinction between a good and an outstanding safety program.

  • A good safety program identifies and eliminates existing safety hazards.
  • An outstanding safety program has management systems that prevent the existence of safety hazards.

A good safety program eliminates the existing hazards as they are identified, whereas an outstanding safety program prevents the existence of a hazard in the first place.

The commonly used management systems directed toward eliminating the existence of hazards include safety reviews, safety audits, hazard identification techniques, checklists, and proper application of technical knowledge.

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