Safety: Protecting Plants Against the Environment

Article by Adam Duckett

REUTERS/Devika Krishna Kumar/Alamy Stock Photo
The Shell Norco manufacturing facility in Louisiana, US, is flooded after Hurricane Ida in August 2021

Adam Duckett speaks to Steven Fitzgibbon about natural hazard risk reduction

WITH severe weather events on the rise we spoke to safety consultant Steven Fitzgibbon about the natural hazards posed to industrial sites and what engineers can do to help safeguard their operations.

“I think a lot of companies don’t understand their own exposure,” says Fitzgibbon, an engineer at ABS Group who helps companies assess their exposure to natural hazards. The UN’s World Meteorological Organization warned last year that the number of disasters related to weather or climate has increased by a factor of five over the past 50 years and because of climate change they will continue to increase and become more severe.

The impacts are being felt globally, but prominent recent events include the severe bushfires that swept Australia in 2020; the high winds of Storm Arwen that caused damage and power cuts in the UK late last year; and the triple hit of Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma that hammered the Caribbean and US Gulf Coast in 2017.

What are the hazards?

I started by asking Fitzgibbon what are the common natural hazards that he is helping clients address.

“Flood risk is becoming quite a big topic for our clients.

“We’re seeing a lot more intense, heavy rainfall events, specifically in Europe. So even though clients may not be affected by river flooding they can still be affected by pluvial [rainfall] flooding causing issues on site with drainage systems.”

He expects problems resulting from high winds will continue to increase, affecting equipment including exposed flare stacks at process plants.
But he says it’s important to review non-process structures too, including cladding on warehousing.

“They tend to be designed to slightly lower robustness levels than you’d expect on a process plant. But it doesn’t mean that they’re not as important. Obviously if you lose your building envelope you’re then exposing what’s inside to wind and water. And some of the reactions you can get when the chemicals get wet are not favourable.”

Fitzgibbon says some clients have been putting extra layers of protection within their buildings to protect against the elements if the outer structure does fail. This has included installing shelters over critical items including molten zinc baths that risk having runaway reactions and explosions if water were to get in.

Other hazards include earthquakes, heat waves, droughts and heavy snow. What can engineers do to review their preparedness?

Fitzgibbon recommends looking at the ISO 14090 standard for adaptation to climate change.

“That provides operators with a framework on the process to follow to establish whether they are compliant or how vulnerable they are to climate change.”

He says many companies don’t understand their exposure or focus on ones that they know affect a site – such as seismic activity - but neglect to review others such as flooding. 

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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