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Article # 0029

Safety and Process Improvement Review Using Former Area Personnel

by: Pierce Burns, PE




Much information and experience is lost each year in chemical plants when operators, engineers, supervisors and maintenance personnel leave the individual operating units in the plant.. A similar loss occurs when ties to research and possibly technical service are cut back or discontinued at the end of the initial startup period. This loss of experience and knowledge from an operating unit can result  in reduced safety, operating efficiency, product quality and opportunities for process improvement. Most manufacturing units in a chemical plant have periodic safety reviews and most have updates of operating procedures from time to time. But, sometimes, there is no overall, fresh look at the unit from a different perspective to see past day to day operations to see where significant improvements can be made.




What is proposed here is to periodically take a fresh look at the individual chemical production units using knowledgeable and experienced experts who worked in the unit but have been away from it for a period of time. These people would work with the current staff to examine the operation of the unit and to make  recommendations and set goals for improvement.




The participants in the work sessions are current unit employees and available people who have worked a significant time on or with the unit in the past. The reasons for people leaving a unit in a chemical plant are varied and some of the people may not be available to return. The people expected to be available include: people who have transferred to other units at the same location, people who have transferred to other locations with the same company or have been promoted, retirees, and research and tech service personnel who are no longer working with the unit. People who have gone to work for another employer would probably not be available. 


Participants should be screened to limit participation to those who have the knowledge and experience to make significant contributions to the common goals. The people should also be screened to make sure that all essential functions are represented but not duplicated. For the purposes of our task, people knowledgeable and experienced in process engineering, safety, research engineering, chemistry, operations, maintenance and governmental regulations would be included, although the nature of the process would dictate the importance of each.


Preparation for the Work Sessions


A coordinator should be assigned responsibility for planning and arrangements for the work sessions weeks in advance. He will work with the unit personnel and bring them into the planning and gain their support early on. He would be responsible for the following:


                       Set the agenda for the work sessions,

                       Prepare a list of attendees,

                       Invite the attendees and make arrangements for them to be available,

                       Set the time and place for the work sessions,

                       Assign responsibility for conducting each work session,  and set a timetable for the overall sessions,

                       Accumulate materials necessary for the work sessions such as process flow diagrams, equipment drawings, operating instructions, operating data sheets, analytical lists and procedures, safety manuals, and statistical data sheets.


The Work Sessions


The work sessions suggested below are a starting point and example. For each chemical operating unit, they should be customized to fit the particular needs of the unit. Obviously, the needs of an ethylene oxide unit would be different than those for a simple batch kettle. All should attend the opening session but other sessions may be attended by selected individuals.




                       Opening Session - The opening session should include a detailed description of how the unit is being run at the present time. Information should be given on problems and safety concerns. Handouts would include operating instructions, a process flow diagram with operating conditions, and other material such as piping diagrams if necessary for understanding particular problems or opportunities. The coordinator may lead this session or he may assign and appropriate leader. All participants should attend this session.

                       Process Safety Review - An obvious second session is a process safety review. This can be as simple as a “What If” study using process flow diagrams to more elaborate studies. All of the participants should attend the session. Frequently safety suggestions go hand and hand with process improvements and sometimes they involve process changes. The process safety review must include written recommendations and a suggested timetable.

                       Process Improvement Session - The agenda for this session is very important. Participants should be asked for agenda items some time before the meeting and the agenda should be provided each participant a week or so before the meeting in order for each person to prepare. Recent problems with the unit should be considered along with such items as product quality improvement, statistical quality control, process chemistry questions, process waste generation, and regulations. The list of items is very specific to the unit and the above list of items should be adjusted for the specific unit. The written report should consist of recommendations, goals and a suggested timetable. Unit personnel should work with the coordinator after the work sessions to make progress reports and to write a final report. 

                       Equipment and Maintenance Improvement Session - This session would be optional and having it would depend on the specific process and if there were important maintenance and/or equipment questions. If equipment problems are not too much of a problem and maintenance is generally routine, then this session may be included in the process improvement session.


                       Product Quality Session - This session would be optional depending on the extent of quality problems with the unit. If product quality is not a major problem then the session may be included as a part of the Process Improvement Session. 




It is concluded that people who worked on chemical process units in the past would serve a valuable function to return for safety and process improvement work sessions. They would provide a fresh look at these functions without being influenced by the present day to day operational problems.


Pierce Burns, PE



Pierce Burns, PE, retired from Texaco Chemical after 34 years of service. During his career with Texaco, he worked first in process development and later was in charge of the Process Demonstration Section at the Austin Labs. The section manufactured products during the transition from research to large-scale plants.

Pierce holds a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas in Austin. He is the holder of eight US patents and twelve foreign patents.


Contact Information:

Pierce Burns

12109 Shetland Chase

Austin, Texas 78727


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