By Gregory Hale
Two weeks after the disaster claimed the lives of 23 people at the Phillips 66 Houston Chemical Complex (HCC) in Pasadena, TX, George King got a second chance at life.
King, who is now a senior principal analyst at safety and security solution provider, aeSolutions, and was then an chemical engineer with Dow Chemical in Freeport TX, just missed becoming a victim of an explosive incident at his facility.
“November 6, 1989 was the day I almost lost my life in a process safety accident,” King said during his talk entitled “The Day I Got a Second Chance,” at the 15th Global Congress on Process Safety held in conjunction with the 2019 AIChE Spring Meeting in New Orleans, LA.. “It was a day that changed my life forever. That was the day I got a second chance.”
In 1989, Dow was the manufacturing leader of ethylbenzene and that is what they made at the plant, King said. They had a $20 million modernization project installed late that summer and they were cranking out benzene and ethylbenzene products.
“Two weeks before my accident was the Phillips 66 Houston chemical accident,” King said. “It was a nice day and the plant was running smoothly that morning, but in the afternoon an 8-inch plastic line pipe failed at the flange piping and it completely separated. The vertical section of the piping was about 20 fee high.
“At that point there was a geyser of effluent hydrocarbon liquids. It formed a flammable vapor cloud. The vapor cloud was starting to drift. It went over to the benzene plant and I was praying to God it would not ignite. Luckily, it did not ignite. I sent workers out of the area. The total release lasted about 30 minutes. We watched the cloud and it eventually diminished. The vapor cloud diminished and I was saved.”
That is when King and colleagues went about looking into why the Teflon pipe failed, how could they assure it would not happen again, plus how did it happen?
Upon further reflection, King said, “There were plenty of ignition sources around us at the plant, but for some reason it did not ignite.”
That is also when King asked himself another question. “What can I do to make the most of the second chance I got?”
Flawed Pipe Threads
“When we examined the pipe after the incident it was a standard piece of pipe. When it was made, the threads were malformed and when the flange was screwed on, only about 1.5 threads engaged. We had inadvertently installed a pipe that only had 1.5 threads … normally you would need 4 to 5 threads.”
In part of the analysis, King asked how will we ever prevent this from happening again? We went to the pipe shop and asked them how can something like this ever get through the pipe shop? The answer from the craftsman in the pipe shop was they didn’t know where the piping was going and they just the pipe and moved it along not really thinking about its impact at the other end.
In the forensic analysis of the near mis, King talked about lessons learned:
• Mechanical integrity failures can be catastrophic.
• Craftsmen often don’t understand their role in process safety.
• Project teams need 20/20 foresight provided by Process Hazard Analysis (PHAs) and Layers of Protection Analysis (LOPAs).
• Accidents provide 20/20 hindsight to management. They were willing to spend money after the accident, not before.
• Management often doesn’t appreciate their influence of process safety.