In recent years, companies in chemicals and other process industries have been giving much greater priority to process safety improvements, and a safety culture has been created among employees.

Consequently, industrial incidents have been decreasing, particularly in North America and Europe. In the US, a total in 2016 of 213 incidents – covering leaks, fires, explosions, and injuries – was the lowest for 10 years, according to figures from the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) Responsible Care programme. The ACC’s member companies operate about 2,000 facilities – in 2016, half of its members had no incidents.

Now, chemical companies are confident they can reduce this even further. LyondellBasell, the US-based petrochemicals and polymers multinational, is aiming under its GoalZero programme for no incidents at all. BASF has set itself a goal of an annual rate of process safety incidents of at least 0.5 per one million working hours by 2025 – a quarter of the level in 2015.


Automating safety

Digitalisation should massively improve safety through initiatives like the use of sensors to signal deficiencies in equipment. Labelled Industry 4.0, digitisation represents the fourth generation of industrialisation. It has the potential to revolutionise the whole value chain in chemicals and other industries, particularly the manufacturing stages.

In manufacturing, digitalisation can lower costs and improve efficiencies from labour to research and development. In process safety, the main advantages are automation via plant monitoring sensors, drastically reducing manpower. Digitalisation can bring down maintenance costs by as much as 40%, and reduce total plant downtime by 30–50%.

Industry 4.0 is not just about collecting and delivering huge amounts of data to central points, but also about processing and analysing big data. With process safety, it provides analytics platforms for achieving significant improvements in safety performance. A key feature of the current digitalisation wave is that the automation system can be designed in-house by company employees, using computer tools supplied by software specialists. This enables companies to tailor how they use the new technology.

 BASF scientists

BASF scientists celebrate the installation of its new supercomputer. Image: BASF

BASF has embarked on an ambitious digitalisation programme with the aid of a supercomputer installed this summer at its main site at Ludwigshafen. A primary purpose of the supercomputer is to boost the company’s R&D performance, but it will also make a substantial contribution to advancing process safety.

Martin Brudermueller, BASF vice-chairman and chief technology officer, said in June 2017, ‘As long as we have the data we can use the supercomputer to analyse the causes of process safety incidents. But we are more likely to use it to introduce safer process systems – how we can predict and prevent accidents happening with the help of sensors. We will be able to work out, for example, the level of seriousness of warning signs from sensors, particularly in relation to the degradation of materials.’

Meanwhile, German speciality chemicals company, Evonik has seen its rate of incident frequency more than halved since 2008, likely due partly to the application of digital technologies. It wants to use automation to identify and prevent process safety risks.

German polymers and coatings producer Covestro has started collecting data from its plants worldwide on every leak, as well as minor and near-miss incidents. The data are carefully analysed to determine causes, with the results and corrective actions being publicised throughout the group.

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Risks 4.0

Chemicals and other process industries have a long history of collecting, interconnecting and analysing data to gain added value, but OSIsoft has warned that the large amounts of data yielded by digitalisation will be a big test for existing IT systems.

Some process safety specialists fear that digitalisation could also lead technical staff to become disengaged from safety issues as responsibilities for checking equipment outside control rooms become automated.

‘To be successful, digitalisation projects in areas like process safety need to be matched properly with human factors,’ explains David Embrey, a consultant at Human Reliability in Dalton, Lancashire. ‘Some schemes can be too technology-centric, with not enough consideration of interaction with people.

‘The introduction of new technologies always brings new risks. For a start, will the digital technologies be accepted by the workforce when they are replacing tasks done by humans?’

The ultimate objective behind digitalisation is analytics. Huge amounts of data can be accumulated to create algorithms that tell companies what to do to increase productivity and raise efficiencies, for example through big cuts in downtime as a result of decreases in process safety incidents.