Fire protection in the chemical industry is a priority task since fire is the number one cause of lives lost in the industry. The presence of massive number of explosive materials that are being produced and stored at any given moment puts at risk both the workers and the environment.
The chemical industry converts raw materials such as oil and gas to chemicals such as petrochemicals and polymers or even consumer products. This section of the economy was started with the industrial revolution and developed rapidly to what it is today. From the 4-billion-dollar global revenue of the chemical industry in 2019, 15% belongs to NAFTA, almost the same to European union but China has a good 40% share!
As the chemical industry advances, more safety measures are introduced to protect workers and prevent fire but the actual data reveals that there is still room for improvement. For example, the likelihood of a fire accident for the chemical industry in Finland has been measured to be 6.4 * 10-6 [1/m²/a] which means for a 5000 m² mid-sized chemical plant, the probability of a fire accident is 2.5% per year or one accident every 40 years. Considering the devastating damages of each accident in long term, the risk is considered high! [Tillander K., 2003].
In this article, we will look at the root causes and safety measures for fire protection in the chemical industry so managers and HSE professionals gain more comprehensive knowledge about this challenging task and look for intelligent solutions.
The ZEMA report (the German major accidents reporting system) of data from 2003 to 2013 revealed that fire resulting from chemical release and ignition sources is the quintessential hazard of the industry. To understand fire protection in the chemical industry, we need to be aware of what causes the fire in the first place. It can be summarized to the following root causes:
The problem with fire in the chemical industry is that the root causes will always be present due to the nature of the work. It is the process safety management (PSM) that has to be optimized for fire protection!
The primary source of safety measures in the chemical industry has been “learning from experience” and designing advanced precautions in a fast and effective way so the hazardous event is never experienced again. The regulations and best practices often result from actual fire accidents that can relate to prevention such as handling of combustible materials of any form or extinguishing process such as retaining firefighting water and safely storing hazardous goods.
An effective approach would have the following safety measures:
It starts by considering the worst-case scenario and preparing for it to prevent any life loss of either worker, people in the neighborhood, or the environment. The steps involve process risk analysis, defining the largest individual quantity (LIQ), measuring the total volume of solvents, and keeping the boiling points below 150. The financial side of the risk should also be evaluated to measure losses resulting from production interruptions and smaller market shares.
Fire protection in the chemical industry is often defined by regulations, based upon the findings of risk evaluation. There are 3 levels of basic, advanced, and supplementary protection.
The basic level includes legally required measures such as fire extinguishers, water supply, wall hydrants, and manual alarm points. The advanced level includes sensors for early warnings (smoke, gas, heat), automatic fire detection systems, stringent fire partitions, semi-fixed extinguishing systems, fixed extinguishing systems (sprinkler, water spray), and fire brigade.
Some of these tools are more appropriate for the demand of the chemical industry such as sprinkler extinguishing systems that have a short response time, robustness, and design flexibility.
The R&D is an integral part of fire protection in the chemical industry since it is defined by increasing costs, changing demographics, and a lower number of full-time workers. It is often focused on automation systems and innovative detecting systems for passive and active approaches.
The passive fire protection involves compartmentalization of the whole building by fire-resistance walls and floors, permanent inertization of warehouses, fireproofing cables, fire resistance cable coating (fire-retardants of either endothermic or intumescent type), support for pipe racks, and protection of tank farms.
Active fire protection involves improving the current systems or innovating new systems of intelligent monitoring, fire detectors, gas detectors, line detectors, sprinkler systems, deluge systems (sprinkler, water spray, water mist), and gaseous extinguishing systems (inert gas, carbon dioxide, steam).
A good example would be water mist systems that incorporate very fine sprays to allow small water droplets to suppress and extinguish a fire by cooling the heat and displacing oxygen. The lower damage leads to shorter downtimes which is very cost-effective.
Fire protection in the chemical industry has been effective to some degree but the ultimate goal is to eliminate any damage or loss of life in humans and other organisms. This will also result in less damage to assets and lower costs.
The proximity of explosive chemicals and ignition sources give rise to fire concerns and historical accidents just prove it to be right. Hot operations, repair and maintenance procedures, electrostatic and even self-ignition are root causes of fire in the chemical industry. So far, the safety measures have been focused on risk evaluation, basic fire protection, advanced and supplementary tools, and R&D.
Despite the partial effectiveness of current safety measures, there are more intelligent tools becoming available to managers due to technological advances such as AI-based HSE management systems which we will explore in the next article!