The oil, gas and chemical process industries (the “process industries”) are tasked with the refining, processing, and shipment of highly hazardous chemicals that are critical to the supply of energy and power, and the production of nearly all consumer products. The process industries are an integral component of the economy that manufactures, stores, uses, and transports potentially dangerous chemicals upon which a wide range of other critical infrastructure sectors rely. For this reason, the oil, gas, and chemical process industries are critical to our society; in the United States these industries are designated as “Critical Infrastructure”.
Principal to the safe operation and reliability of these facilities is the management of process risks through modern process safety management (PSM) systems. Whenever process facilities operate, there are risks of catastrophic accidents that can result in harm to people, harm to the environment, and damage to property. Processing highly hazardous chemicals involves the risk of accidents that can result in catastrophic fires, explosions and toxic releases, generally referred to as process risks. These catastrophic process incidents can result in real threats to communities and the environment if not properly managed, including the potential for lethal impacts to workers and the public offsite, hospitalization of large numbers of people, major oil spills, or the contamination of waterways. Details of past incidents can be found at www.csb.gov. To prevent these incidents, operating companies employ teams of engineers, technicians, and maintenance workers to conduct an array of PSM activities. These teams monitor equipment degradation and corrosion to identify equipment that is at risk of failure; they ensure critical safety devices are operational and used properly; they analyze process hazards to identify potential scenarios that could lead to catastrophic incidents; and, they implement engineering and administrative controls to mitigate the risks from the handling and processing of hazardous materials. In the United States, operators must comply with the OSHA’s Process Safety Management and EPA’s Risk Management Program regulations; abroad, countries employ similar regulations to prevent these catastrophic incidents.
The chemical process industry must continue to run through the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is essential to maintain a high state of vigilance to safeguard our facilities, operating personnel, and critical processes from the risks of fires, explosions, and toxic releases during these times. A catastrophic accident in an operating facility at this time would not only result in impacts to people’s health and the environment, but it would also stress the healthcare system, demand the attention of large groups of first responders, and simultaneously disrupt supply chains-all at a time when these resources are already stressed to historic levels. The steady operation of the oil, gas, and chemical industry is the foundation of the world’s ability to supply fuel, power, and essential consumer products which are all required to allow us to power homes and businesses, provide fuel for transportation, and produce essential products.
While the environment surrounding facilities is increasingly stressed by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, operating companies may be stressed by staff working remotely, increased absenteeism due to illness, restricted travel, and the delay of major maintenance activities and turnarounds. These factors all contribute to increase the potential for human errors and mechanical failures that can lead to catastrophic accidents.
As we continue through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that we remain vigilant in our dedication to the safe and reliable operation of our critical infrastructure facilities. We cannot allow difficulties associated with social distancing and remote working to deteriorate the effective management of process risks by foregoing or delaying PSM activities. While some actions can and will be delayed, it is vital that operations managers and government organizations provide operating facilities with any resources necessary to continue effectively managing process safety. Moreover, it is essential that operating companies be prepared to adapt and accommodate changes to their normal work processes to complete the myriad tasks associated with PSM during the COVID-19 pandemic.