Saturday, April 15, 2017

CSB is fighting for its life - fight with it!

The new American president have apparently decide in his suggested budget to remove anything, which he don't understand, and use the money on the military - at least that is how I read what has been reported in the media (even though the president want us to believe, that we can't trust the media). One of the things the president don't understand is the role the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) plays in saving Americans by investigating a few of the many accidents, that each year just happens at US chemical and refining facilities.

The CSB has an annual budget of just US$ 11,000,000 which help protect American workers.By comparison the budget for protecting the American people is US$ 580,300,000,000 - or more than US$ 66,000,000 each hour of the year or US$ 11,000,000 every 10 minutes. That is six times the CSB budget. Both the US CSB and tthe US Military help protect Americans, and that is the message, which the US president needs to understand.

I am not always pleased with the focus of the investigation reports and case studies issued by the CSB. Those viewpoints were presented at the 2013 International Symposium on Loss Prevention and Safety Prevention in Florence, Italy in a paper titled "How Could CSB Investigation Reports Be Improved?" (copy can be requested by email to However, although there may be things to improve at the CSB is contribute improved process safety for workers and neighbors of chemical facilities. One example of this the CSB investigation of the explosion on August 28th, 2008 at Bayer Crop Sciences in Institute West Virginia. This facility used to be owned by Union Carbide, but was after the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India involving the release of highly toxic methyl isocyanate acquired by Dow Chemical in 2001. Later the facility in Institute was acquired by Bayer, and at the time of the incident it was part of Bayer's Crop Sciences Division.

However, even in 2008 methyl isocyanate (MIC) was still used at facility in Insittute, and a tank with MIC barely escaped damage in the 2008 explosion. However, today MIC is no longer used at the Institute facility. This in my view can be credited to the CSB investigation report, which was highly critical of the continued use of MIC at the Institute facility. Other companies, such as DuPont, after 1984 moved quickly to eliminate any storage of the intermediate MIC at their facilities worldwide. Dow Chemical and Bayer was slower to do this, but has caught up. Today, thanks in part to the CSB investigation of the 2008 explosion it is safer to live in Institute, West Virginia than it has been for many years.

Institute is in the Khanawha Valley, which in the late eighties and early nineties became very known in international safety community for a local group of volunteers, which forced companies in the area to tell their neighbors - and hence the world about the toxic chemicals at their facilities and the worst case events, which they could cause.  The result was the creation of Local Emergency Planning  Committees, and also in Sarnia's Chemical Valley a similar initiative to have companies tell the public about the impact on the community of possible worst case accidents, and the efforts of industry to avoid such events.

The idea that safety pays is not new. Some years ago the European Process Safety Centre had a video on this subject created, which you can view and order here (watching the video online requires Flash 8, so it won't work in Chrome). I am happy that the CSB now - a bit late - also beet the same drum. Read about that here in CSB's own words. Help save the CSB by sharing messages such as this one in the process safety community - and if you are American maybe also share these messages with your representatives in Congress.

PS: Thanks in part to the European Union in Europe we a different approach to process safety, than the US. Authorities here don't prescribe solutions, just tell companies, that they are not allowed to kill people or pollute the environment if they want to keep their licence to operate.

Monday, November 21, 2016

What is the problems with much of the engineering literature?

With the increasing pressure on academics to publish articles and the many journals available for such publication I have noticed that many academic publication show clear evidence of a lag of industrial experience among the writers. The result - in my view - is, that many academic articles don't have a clear focus on the potential reader.

The following quote is from an Elsevier peer reviewed publication:
"In a large process plant, there may be as many as 1500 process variables observed every few seconds leading to information overload."
You may ask, what is wrong here? The writer appear lag a) an understanding of how a DCS works, and b) an the difference between logging data and observing them. It is true, that a modern DCS or SCADA may have 1500 process variables, which are being logged every few seconds. However, even at very complex facilities the operator usually have less than a dozen key process variables, which she or he monitors continuously. So - in my view - the statement that the number of variables entering the DSC or SCADA leads to information overload is incorrect and misleading. I think the reviewer should asked the authors to a least modify this sentence in introduction. Unfortunately most reviewers don't go into such details. I think this is a major quality issue with the current system of academic publications.

This very well illustrate a problem with current engieneering literature in the sciences. The readers and the authors see things from different perspectives. By Chylld - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
I have however noticed, that the introduction to articles in the medical literature often are much more precise and to the point. In the engineering literature I find most introductions very loose essay like motivations for the work done after the work was performed.

Here is a second quite from the same publication:

"Using MFM to model the plant all that is needed is a basic understanding of chemical unit operations, their purposes and the fundamentals on which these purposes are bult, i.e. transport phenomena, thermodynamics and kinetics. This means that functional HAZOP study may be performed by less experienced personnel."
Unfortunately one of my publications is quoted to support this statement. However, the major problem in this quote is the assumption, that if you understand chemical unit operations, then you also understand how they may fail, which is what is needed for a HAZOP study. But operational principles of chemical unit operations are much easier to grasp than the failure modes of even a single unit operation, e.g. a distillation tower. In my article we only claimed, that a less experienced engineer could help with the pre-meeting tasks, if one divided the plant along functional lines. A distillation column would e.g. be divided into a reflux loop, a reboiler loop, a feed section and two separation sections.

Another area, where much engineering literature fails, is in comparing a presented approach or methodology to other approaches or methodologies for handling the same problem. This naturally leads to weak conclusions, such as the following:
"The results show the strength of this approach and can be considered as a useful strategy for dealing  with  complex  chemical processes."
However, the article contain no quantification of "the strength of this approach" or of  how "useful" the strategy is compared to what is already being done in practice. The result is, that practicing engineers, whether in design or operations or process control, are very reluctant in adopting new methodologies. This means progress is slow to move from academic research in engineering to engineering practice.

The question is if we can ever get both the readers and the authors on the same level. By Original image by Algr.Recreated, fixed isometric projection and vectorised by Icey. - Own work.This vector image was created with Inkscape., CC BY-SA 3.0,

So how do we get academic writers to focus more on their potential readers? Their audience! The current system provides no credit for number of readers to the authors. However, with the increasing number of open access online journals is should be relative easy for publisher to monitor which articles are being read more than others, and this information could then be feed back in the academic merit system. Currently such information about readers is only available through independent portals such as ResearchGate and others.