CSB: Plastic Plant Needs Better Safety Technology

Better safety technology such as automatic shutdown valves and fireproof steel supports as well as fireproof clothing for workers would have enabled Formosa Plastics Corp. to lessen damage from a 2005 fire and explosion at a Texas chemical plant that injured 16 workers, according to a case study released by the U.S. Chemical and Safety Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) on July 20.

The Oct. 6, 2005, accident occurred when a forklift towing a trailer snagged a valve, pulling it out of the system. This caused the release of a large volume of propylene, which then ignited, creating a large fire. The initial explosion knocked several operators to the ground and burned two men, one seriously.

CSB concludes that had the Olefins II unit been equipped with automated shutdown valves, it may have been possible to stop the propylene flow, limiting the size of the fire. The agency also said some steel supports were not fireproofed and collapsed, which caused the failure of pipes designed to carry flammable hydrocarbons to the unit's flare system.

In addition, CSB found flame-resistant clothing was not required for all employee activities within the Olefins II unit where there were large quantities of flammable liquids and gases.

"This began with a seemingly minor event, in which a trailer bumped into a drain valve," said CSB's John Bresland. "But the incident had disastrous consequences because the facility was not better-prepared for a large chemical release. The fires and explosions at Formosa's Point Comfort plant provide compelling reasons to analyze vulnerabilities that could lead to a major chemical accident."

Recommendations

The board urges Formosa to revise its policies and procedures for analyzing hazards to include vehicle impact dangers, fireproofing of structural steel and mechanisms for controlling chemical releases such as remotely controlled isolation valves. The board also recommends Formosa provide fire-resistant clothing to workers exposed to the dangers of flash fires.

The board recommends Kellogg, Brown and Root, the company that designed Formosa's facility, use the most current safety standards including standards for fireproofing when designing new facilities.

The Center for Chemical Process Safety, a leading safety organization, is urged to strengthen its hazard evaluation guidelines to include vehicle impact hazards and isolation of equipment during emergencies.

New Safety Video

In addition, CSB released a safety video, Fire and Explosions at Formosa Plastics Corp., which includes computer animation depicting events leading to the accident. The video includes news footage of the spreading fire following the initial explosion. Video captured by a company flare system camera dramatically shows subsequent explosions at the Olefins II unit as these vapors ignite.

CSB Chairman Carolyn Merrit reiterated how a seemingly small incident could have big consequences.

"This CSB safety video graphically shows how a seemingly minor incident led to a large fire and explosions, and we hope it will receive a wide viewing throughout the chemical industry," she said. "The video shows the need for companies to conduct thorough hazard analyses when designing plants and to consider the consequences of potential large-scale releases such as the one at Formosa."

The video can be viewed and downloaded on the board's Web site in the Video Room.

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