AUTHOR: Holly Burgess

Preparing Chemical Facilities for Hurricane Season

Recently, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued a call to chemical facilities to prepare for a harsh hurricane season based on an “above average” outlook on hurricane activity from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This year, NOAA has stated that there’s a 30 percent chance of an above-average-intensity hurricane season. NOAA’s predictions also estimate a range of 12 to 17 total named storms this season. NOAA gave its predictions a 70 percent confidence rating.  Just last week, Hurricane Idalia collided with the Gulf Coast of Florida, where the storm is estimated to have caused $12 to $20 billion in damage and lost economic activity, according to CBS News. Chemical facilities pose a special risk Hurricanes can cause significant damage to chemical facilities, in particular, and potentially lead to environmental and safety hazards. Chemical plants are complex facilities that often handle hazardous materials and if not properly managed during a hurricane can pose serious risks to the people working at the facility and nearby communities. There have been many fire and explosion incidents over the years due to lack of preparedness during hurricanes. One, for example, was the Arkema, Inc. chemical plant fire in Texas in 2017, during which a hurricane disabled the facility’s refrigeration system and water flooded the equipment and caused the stored chemicals to burn. Another incident occurred at Bio-Lab’s Lake Charles facility in Louisiana in 2020 after water from a hurricane came into contact with chemicals stored inside the facility, causing a chemical reaction which initiated a fire. NFPA offers solutions There are plans that can be put into place that cover what can be done to reduce the possible impact of hurricane damage causing fire or explosions. One of the plans that can be used is NFPA 1660, Standard for Emergency, Continuity, and Crisis Management: Preparedness, Response and Recovery, which provides guidelines for creating, implementing, assessing, and maintaining effective disaster/emergency management and business continuity programs. It covers a wide range of topics related to disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation, as well as continuity planning to ensure the continued operation of organizations in the face of disruptions.    RELATED: Read a blog about bringing electrical systems back online after major storms   NFPA 1660 emphasizes a comprehensive approach to emergency management and continuity planning, encompassing various aspects such as risk assessments, planning, communication, training, and ongoing improvement. More specifically, NFPA 1660 addresses hurricanes in multiple chapters in Annex A, along with multiple chapters advising incident pre-planning processes. Preparation for natural disasters often goes beyond evacuating the plant and may even require additional isolation and containment measures. Some facilities may be required to have an emergency action plan from NFPA 1, Fire Code, or NFPA 101, Life Safety Code. Those plans should address hazards that are normally outside of the scope of the Code to the extent practicable. Other NFPA codes and standards that address hurricanes are NFPA 110, Standard for Emergency and Standby Power Systems, NFPA 1250, Recommend Practice in Fire and Emergency Service Organization Risk Management, and NFPA 59A, Standard for the Production, Storage, and Handling of Liquefied Natural Gas, just to name a few. Utilizing any of the NFPA codes and standards that address hurricane hazards can help to create a framework for developing emergency management and business continuity plans. Overall, the interaction between hurricanes and chemical plants underscores the importance of comprehensive disaster preparedness and response plans. These plans should be regularly reviewed, updated, and tested to ensure that the facilities can effectively manage the risks associated with hurricanes and minimize their potential impact on both human safety and the environment.

The Hazard of Mixing Chemicals

We have all heard there are chemicals that we cannot mix together. Even at home, mixing chemicals like bleach and vinegar can create chlorine gas. Have you ever thought about this on a larger scale though? What happens when incompatible mixtures combine at manufacturing or storage facilities?   In a small Kentucky town last month, three people were severely injured and one killed in an explosion. It all started when a waste company began pumping sludge out of a local plant. The sludge mixture combined with some used cooking oil that was already in the tank and exploded. The sludge, mixed with oil, caused a chemical reaction that resulted in an explosion that jettisoned the tank through an exterior wall and two interior walls.   In my personal experience, I have seen reactions happen in containers that were thought to be considered empty. I have seen something as simple as drums of cleaning agents mixed together that created an incompatible mixture that reacted and started to melt a 55-gallon (208-Liter) drum.   On a much larger scale, in May 2019, a chemical explosion occurred at a facility in Waukegan, Illinois, causing multiple deaths, injuries, and damage to multiple buildings. This was caused by the mixing of chemicals from a misidentified drum, where the reaction released flammable hydrogen gas into the building.   How to stay safer   As we know, this is not a new issue, but there are many things that we can do to ensure that we are not mixing incompatible materials, and NFPA® codes and standards give us a lot of guidance.     “ Information on incompatible materials can be found in safety data sheets or manufacturers’ product bulletins. This is always the first place that you want to look when working with chemicals.     If you look in the 2022 edition of NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code, you will see that in Annex A, information on incompatible materials can be found in safety data sheets (SDS) or manufacturers’ product bulletins. This is always the first place that you want to look when working with chemicals.   There are also many materials that are not compatible with water, especially combustible dusts. This causes an issue when there is a possible fire. In the 2020 edition of NFPA 654, Standard for the Prevention of Fire and Dust Explosions from the Manufacturing, Processing, and Handling of Combustible Particulate Solids, under Annex A.3.3.55, water-incompatible materials are classified as those that dissolve in water or form mixtures with water that are no longer processable—for example, sugar. Although water is an effective extinguishing agent for sugar fires, the sugar dissolves in the water, resulting in a syrup that can no longer be processed through manufacturing equipment.   A similar situation exists with flour. When mixed with water, it becomes dough. These materials are candidates for extinguishing systems that use media other than water until the damage potential of the fire approaches the replacement cost of the process equipment. (Learn more about clean agent fire suppression systems in this blog.)   Water-reactive materials, which are typified in Annex A.3.3.56 of NFPA 654, also represent a very special fire protection problem. The application of water from fixed water-based extinguishing systems or by the fire service without awareness of the presence of these materials could seriously exacerbate the threat to human life or property. For example, many chemicals form strong acids or bases when mixed with water, thus introducing a chemical burn hazard. Additionally, most metals in the powdered state can burn with sufficient heat to chemically reduce water-yielding hydrogen, which can then support a deflagration. These types of materials should be handled very carefully. Even small quantities of water usually make matters worse.   It’s also important to remember that if incompatible chemicals are mixed, there is a potential for off-gassing. In an incident in March 2022, a worker was injured after being exposed to a toxic gas that was produced after two chemicals were mixed. This incident involved incompatible mixing with an oxidizer. Oxidizers are incompatible with many chemicals or other materials. It is essential to follow all storage and handling procedures to prevent conditions that might cause emergencies, such as a fire or explosion. Annex G.6.2 in NFPA 400 reviews the compatibility of dealing with oxidizers.   Remember that you should always know what you have on site. Ensure that you have a site plan outlining what is at your location and your emergency plans, and ensure those who could be affected by chemicals are properly trained. When planning, make sure to check out NFPA 1660, Standard for Emergency, Continuity, and Crisis Management: Preparedness, Response, and Recovery. For more information on hazardous materials, reference NFPA 400.

Winter is Coming. Is Your Facility Protected?

As the seasons change and temperatures cool down, the impacts of freezing weather should be on the top of everyone’s mind—even for those who historically did not have to worry.    In February 2021, for example, a cold snap brought frigid temperatures to Texas, leading to some 250 reported deaths. In January, Florida battled record freezing temperatures, with millions waking up to unprecedented temps in the 20s on some mornings.  Weather like this can affect any industry, from chemical, manufacturing, and construction to oil and gas. Any facility that has outdoor piping, storage, or cooling towers can be at risk. While most colder regions have facilities equipped to deal with cold weather, many central and southern locations are not adequately designed and protected for such low temperatures. Extreme weather events can create conditions that could lead to failing components, if proper protocol is not followed. Failure can depend on equipment exposure to the elements, weatherization, and the combination of cold temperatures, moisture, and precipitation.  We need to realize that a lot of facility equipment can be in danger of extreme cold temperatures. Some chemicals can expand when they drop below their freezing points, which increases the likelihood of their containers rupturing. There could also be damage to the substances themselves, making them harder to use. Some chemicals can even become more volatile due to the cold or cause ingredients to separate. Lines can become permanently blocked when chemicals that typically are pumped throughout the facility become cement-like due to exposure to freezing temperatures. Even though ice problems are rare with natural gas and propane pipelines, they can still exist from alternate sources.   There are multiple NFPA codes and standards that address how to protect equipment and processes from freezing temperatures. A few of those documents—and the relevant requirements found within them—are listed below.   NFPA 2, Hydrogen Technologies Code (2020 edition) Components shall be designed, installed or protected so their operation is not affected by freezing rain, sleet, snow, ice, mud, insects or debris []  Pressure relief valves or vent piping shall be designed or located so that moisture cannot collect and freeze in a manner that would interfere with the operation of the device [ and]   NFPA 51, Standard for the Design and Installation of Oxygen-Fuel Gas Systems for Welding, Cutting, and Allied Processes (2023 edition) Generators shall be protected against freezing. The use of salt or other corrosive chemical to prevent freezing shall be prohibited []  Where (acetylene gas holders) not located within a heated building, gas holders shall be protected against freezing []  NFPA 58, Liquified Petroleum Gas Code (2020 edition) All regulators for outdoor installations shall be designed, installed or protected so  their operation will not be affected by the elements (freezing rain, sleet, snow, ice, mud or debris) []  NFPA 86, Standard for Ovens and Furnaces (2023 edition) Coolant piping systems shall be protected from freezing []  If pipeline protective equipment incorporates a liquid, the liquid level shall be maintained, and an antifreeze shall be permitted to prevent freezing []  Pressure relief devices or vent piping shall be designed or located so that moisture cannot collect and freeze in a manner that would interfere with operation of the device []  While we cannot always predict if an extreme cold event will occur, we can prepare. As we enter the time of year when we get colder temperatures, ensure that your facility is identifying past and future extreme cold weather events. Research cold events that have happened in warmer regions and identify what NFPA codes and standards can be applied to ensure that your facility is prepared. Inspect your facility to detect and document any deficiencies in cold weather preparedness for equipment. Lastly, when planning, make sure to check out NFPA 1600, Standard on Continuity, Emergency and Crisis Management, for more information. 

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