Updated: May 3, 2021
This article was originally posted on Thursday April 23, 2020
It's easy to look at inspection activities as low-risk in comparison to more mechanical types of tasks within the industry. However, if you dissect some of these tasks, and the risks associated with each, you get a clearer picture of how dangerous inspection work can be. In this article we will highlight some of these hazards, as well as some mitigation tools for each.
Many hazards revolve around performing inspection related tasks. The single most valuable tool Sentinel has put in place is a last-minute risk assessment. It’s a very simple, quick and painless process which boils down to simply asking yourself one question, “what can go wrong?” Before you start take a quick look at the task you are about to execute and think outside of the box to identify any potential hazards. This process typically only takes seconds to perform. You will be surprised at how many things you will observe, take note of and be able to mitigate.
When I think of hazards associated with our typical day to day inspection tasks, one of the first ones which comes to mind is the execution of hydrostatic testing. Unfortunately, I was on a turnaround years ago that involved a fatality of a QC inspector who was in the process of evaluating a hydrostatic test on a heat exchanger. The test assembly (test tree) that was being utilized at the connection point was constructed of fittings that were not rated for the test pressure of the test being performed. The test assembly failed resulting in the fatal accident. It is extremely important to verify that the test assembly is actually rated for the test pressure being applied.
Things to look for before Hydrostatic Testing
Verify that the test assembly is fabricated correctly and meets the intended requirements for the test pressure. Keep in mind that the reason for the hydrostatic test is typically because something changed, be very cautious and treat the component with respect.
Tube plugs are another area of concern for hydrostatic testing of heat exchangers. It’s very important to take extreme caution when evaluating tube plugs. There is no need to assume any risk by placing any body parts in the line of fire of these tube plugs.
Know your limitations
This can be different from person to person, especially when the task is moderately physical. As we age I’ve noticed minor changes in my body and my mindset which affect my abilities and the way I approach inspection activities. If your instincts tell you it doesn’t feel right, then listen and take action. Ask for additional access or equipment if needed, but always put safety first.
This is a photo of me in 2011 performing an internal inspection on what is probably one of the smallest most confined pressure vessels that I have entered.
The tray spacing was tight and the tray manways were staggered. In a situation like this, even a person who is not claustrophobic can begin to experience mental challenges with minor onsets of panic, impatience, etc. I remember making very slow movements and concentrating on breathing along with some mental coaching to reassure myself that all was good and to keep calm.
Five process engineers went up to the entry point with me that night with intentions of entering, but none of the five entered the space. At the time I was confident and comfortable performing the entry, could I do it today? Maybe not, but knowing and accepting one’s personal limitations are a critical component of safety culture, not just individual safety.
Several years later I came across two situations which presented challenges with confined space entries. In both situations I was not comfortable entering the space and ended up asking for additional access. Know your limitations and don’t be afraid to speak up. You may save yourself or someone else in the future.
Confined spaces offer many variables, and every confined space entry job is different, presenting its own set of hazards. In many cases we perform confined space entry during lunch windows (due to heavy work activity). This scenario actually minimizes risk in most cases; however, this work should never be performed alone, a partner should always be present, especially in confined space scenarios. With many potential hazards, leveraging teamwork to drive collective success across all areas of safety is crucial. Every facility has its own level of safety culture; Sentinel strives to achieve safety beyond that level on every job site we visit.
Evaluate safety conditions around you
In some cases, you may notice other workers executing tasks using a piece of equipment which is not intended for the task, or using a procedure that does not apply to the situation. It is easy for complacency to get the best of you in these situations, but you must remain focused and trust your instincts, as well as the last-minute risk assessment.
In the summer of 2008 I was performing multiple pressure vessel evaluations for a petrochemical facility. I received a pretty standard radio call notifying me one of the packed bed reactors was ready for internal inspection. When I arrived at the entry point (Horizontal manway) I noticed the cleaning crew exiting the vessel. I was immediately intrigued by this device that was bolted to the manway flange.
The maintenance crew at the facility, with direction from the lead engineer, had fabricated a device that bolted to the manway, projected into the vessel and had hardware that facilitated the attachment of a cable ladder. I immediately realized that the intent of the device was in good spirit. The attempt was to make it easier to access by getting the cable off of the vessel wall. The problem was that no lifeline or self-retracting lifeline was being utilized and the device was basic carbon steel with no steps or handles available for egress etc. This was a very bad situation; therefore I kindly refused to perform the entry and I elevated my concern of other contractors entering and exiting the vessel under the current situation.
It wasn’t very long after that I found myself in the plant manager's office being questioned as to what the concerns were. Long story short they asked for my feedback on what I felt was a safer approach, and we were able to take a different, safer approach to perform the confined space entry. The moral of the story is, just because other people are doing something a certain way, it does not necessarily mean it is safe. If your instincts tell you something is not right, take action.
Be analytical, make sure the set-up is correct and safe, ask for additional support and equipment if needed, and refuse to use safety equipment that is not properly designed or certified. Establish an analytical procedure for the execution of your tasks. Perform the last-minute risk assessment for every task and you will quickly realize that you will find yourself identifying hazards without putting much effort into it. This is the sole indicator that behavior-based safety works!