Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Call to Step Up Process Safety

The American Section of the Société de Chimie Industrielle awarded its Palladium Medal last week to Nova Chemicals president and CEO Jeff Lipton, a deserving honor for one of industry’s most passionate, tireless, and effective advocates. During his acceptance speech, Lipton called on industry to focus more attention on the critical issue of process safety, urging companies to measure and publicly report uncontrolled process fires as well as loss of process containment incidents.
Citing the catastrophic explosion at BP’s Texas City, TX refinery two years ago, Lipton said: “I would bet that there isn’t a management team, CEO, or board of directors of a refining or chemical company that hasn’t studied the reports and then said, in one way or another, ‘That, but for the grace of God, could have been our facility or our employees.’”
Lipton also recounted experiences at Nova. Soon after joining the company from DuPont in 1993, he visited each site and “came away quite shaken from one.” The plant, using a process that involves a flammable solvent under high temperature and pressure conditions, had suffered process fires every few weeks. “In my mind the leaders of that plant had been lucky-—very lucky—that they hadn’t yet had a time when they had a fire, and the conditions in and around the plant had, because of some other accident or mistake, become susceptible to an explosion.” Lipton took action, measuring each incident across the company and tying incentive compensation to improvement.
One “leading indicator” for fire safety was “loss of process containment. It became pretty obvious—if we keep all materials from leaking out of pipes, pumps, valves, process vessels, and storage tanks—there will be no uncontrolled process fires even in the most dangerous operation,” Lipton says. “That plant that had a fire every few weeks for many years, last had one in 2003,” he says. “Process safety improvement will reduce the number of catastrophic explosions, reduce environmental risk, and also make our operations more energy efficient. Not a bad result for paying attention to one new set of data.”
Quick action on the issue would befit Lipton’s legacy as one of industry’s leading statesmen. “I will feel fully deserving of the International Palladium Medal when we are successful in getting the ACC, and then related associations around the world, to begin to require members, as part of our tremendously successful Responsible Care program, to measure and publicly report loss of process containment and uncontrolled process fires.”

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