Roughly 200,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines crisscross the United States, delivering oil to refineries and other plants that produce the fuel that powers our lives. Safety is a primary focus of the oil and gas industry, and the industry has made a commitment to zero incidents and has invested in tools and technologies to make that goal a reality.
To get an inside scoop on pipeline safety, we spoke with Dale Gross, a Senior Health and Safety Advisor at Michigan-based firm TriMedia Environmental & Engineering. Gross has been in the environmental health and safety field for about 20 years, performing remedial investigations and environmental cleanups following incidents. He provided several tips on how companies can make zero incidents a reality.
Call before you dig
If you’re starting a new project or building a new facility, the first step toward safety is making sure you don’t disrupt any pipelines or other conduits that are already in place. That’s why the federal government created 811, the “Call Before You Dig” number.
Although digging safety campaigns are often targeted at homeowners, preventing ground disturbance is just as applicable when siting new energy facilities. “With bigger facilities, it becomes a greater challenge to know where you can dig safely,” says Gross. “If you rupture a pipe, not only will there be environmental damage, but also the possibility of an explosion, a fire, and death.”
Environmental consultants can help you verify that there are no existing pipelines or related infrastructure in your location.
Install remote-actuated valves
Having the right valves can go a long way toward preventing incidents. Gross notes that most new construction is currently being built with remote-actuated valves, especially in high consequence areas. Existing pipelines can also be retrofitted with these newer technologies.
The benefit of remote-actuated valves is that they can be controlled from a central location with the push of a button. That means pipeline maintenance personnel don’t need to drive out and manually close the valves. Not only does this solution save you money on labor, it contributes to your sustainability efforts as well. Valves stations are often located in remote areas, and in an emergency situation it can take time for maintenance technicians to get to them — that delay may be long enough for a small problem to turn into a big one.
Install valves at closer intervals
Pipeline valves make it so you can easily isolate that section of pipe in case of a leak or other problem. But, Gross says, if you have miles of pipe between valves and there’s an issue, all of the contents of the pipe will run out. Installing valves at closer intervals will give you more precise control by isolating smaller sections of the pipeline.
Track maintenance activities for your assets
One of the most common types of problems Gross sees is valve leakage on small valves, primarily due to the packing. These aren’t major leaks that make the news and register as external non-compliances, but they are typically internal non-compliances, and it’s important to track them to make sure there’s not a larger systemic problem.
“We’re talking about ounces of material that pipeline companies are responsible for making sure doesn’t leak,” Gross says. “A lot of the time, this is due to companies not having a good system for determining when their assets need maintenance.”
If you have abnormal operating conditions, shut the system down right away
Gross emphasizes the importance of accurately diagnosing problems, rather than just making assumptions about what they might be. Assumptions can lead to errors, which in turn can lead to disasters.
For example, water hammer and related phenomena (e.g., column separation) have been the root cause of several pipeline breaks in the oil and gas industry and beyond. The consequences of some of these problems were exacerbated by poor communication during the troubleshooting process.
Instead, Gross recommends shutting everything down as soon as you see abnormal operating conditions. This will allow you the time and space to figure out what’s really going on rather than falling victim to confirmation bias (i.e., the tendency to interpret information according to your pre-existing beliefs). “Don’t make the mistake of going down the path of what you think the problem is,” Gross says. “Instead, confirm with eyes on the ground what it actually is.”
Ensure personnel have air monitoring equipment in hazardous areas
Reducing fugitive emissions from valves and other equipment, as well as the problems caused by those emissions, is a top priority across the oil and gas industry. One way to achieve this goal is to make sure your personnel, including contractors, have appropriate air monitoring equipment when working in restricted or hazardous areas.
Gross gives the example of a company that recently issued a requirement for all diesel equipment, such as diesel excavators, to have positive air shut-off valves. These valves protect against runaway conditions and possible explosions in areas where there’s a high concentration of hydrocarbon in the air.
Invest in contractor management
Pipeline projects often rely on contract work, and it’s crucial that the contractors you hire are not only qualified, but also share your company’s values.
To find these contractors, Gross recommends using a contract management platform like ISNetworld. This third-party service provides pre-qualification for contractors that do medium- or high-risk work. This includes verifying contractors’ qualifications including training and certifications, insurance, drug and alcohol screening, and more.
Prioritize worker safety
Also on the occupational side, Gross emphasizes the importance of worker safety. While the oil and gas industry has a low rate of overall injuries compared to other industries, it has a high rate of severe injuries and fatalities. “You wouldn’t believe the number of times people bash themselves when torquing bolts,” Gross says. “It happens more often than you’d think, and it’s often more severe than you’d think.”
Worker safety and environmental safety are inextricably linked. This is especially true during emergency response situations.
One of the top issues to be aware of is worker fatigue. A recent National Safety Council report found that 13% of workplace injuries are attributable to fatigue, and, as Rigzone points out, almost all of the risk factors for fatigue are common in the oil and gas industry.
Gross has experienced this first-hand. While working on emergency response projects, he has seen people work until they almost drop. He himself once worked 12 to 14 hours for 26 days straight. “In management, you see overworked people get tunnel vision and start making poor decisions,” he says. “Workers on the ground lose situational awareness and start making mistake they normally would never make.” The key, he says, is to make sure you have enough people to run your shifts, while also ensuring everyone gets days off.
Obviously, the last thing anyone wants is a spill. It’s bad for the environment, for your reputation, and for your company’s bottom line. But with the right equipment and expertise, zero incidents can be a reality.
If you’re planning a new project, looking to upgrade your valves, or require maintenance services, give us a call. For more information about emergency response planning and other environmental consulting services, visit the TriMedia website.