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Can You Save Money Safely?

Posted on September 16th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


A definitive analysis of history’s worst industrial disaster provides important insight into the disparity between process safety and saving money. Ask the average person what caused the Bhopal disaster and he or she will likely tell you that it all came down to economics.

Indeed, on the surface there is ample evidence that saving money was involved. But diving deeper, a clearer picture develops. This picture affects anyone expected to save money while designing, constructing, operating, and maintaining a process. If your job performance requires demonstrating good economic judgment, then continue reading. None of you should have been lost by that.

Conditioned to Save

From the moment we are born, money plays a major role in our lives. For example, economics determine where we can live, where we go to school, the insurance we carry, and the medical care we receive. Typically, the more we can make, the better we can compete for limited resources. For most of us, our net value is measured by how much we earn. It also depends on how much we save.

Thus, from our moment of birth we are also encouraged to exercise economic restraint whenever possible. We learn to think about a purchase before making it. Is this the best economic choice I can make, or can I consider alternatives? Can I achieve the same purpose with a less expensive option? These are the types of questions we regularly ask, perhaps even without knowing it. As we prepare for a career in the oil & gas or chemical processing industry, we are taught that more economical processes raise profits and reduce the break-even quantity. We produce more and compete more aggressively by being cost-conscious.

In the chemical process that was involved in the Bhopal disaster, anything that could oxidize to form a metallic oxide was incompatible. It is therefore comforting to know that the design specification clearly documented that stainless steel was required. However, certain applicable process sections were constructed with lower-grade iron material that would rust in the presence of air. True – iron was less expensive than stainless steel and was therefore more desirable. But why would a successful company with a clean reputation deliberately violate their own design specification in the interest of saving a little bit of money? Surely, none of us would make such a conscientious error by constructing a process with an incompatible material. Or would we?

Justifying Non-conformance

The truth is that in this case we probably would have recommended the same deviation from the design specification. If that recommendation was not ours to make, then we likely would have gone right along with it – convinced that we were fully justified in doing so to save some money. Upon examination we find that the sections of pipe that were constructed with inferior materials were intended by design to operate under an uninterrupted inert gas blanket. Nitrogen was added to the process vapor system to control the flammable process’ ignition hazard. Thus – constructing the process with stainless steel was considered “double protection” against rust formation. Since the flammability hazard could not be managed without nitrogen, its continual presence in the process vapor transfer system made construction with stainless steel unnecessary. In the presence of nitrogen, the less expensive iron material would behave identical to stainless steel – thus satisfying the intent of the design specification, except more economically. Unfortunately the process design where that substitution was made underwent changes after commissioning, as do most of the processes that we operate today.

Defend the Inherently Safer Design Option

No doubt economics play a huge role in the decisions we make on a daily basis. Whether at home or at work, we consistently base our purchasing decisions on economics. Looking back on decisions that did not go as well as hoped provides an opportunity to improve our thought process so that we do not sacrifice process safety in the pursuit of savings. The lesson we take away from the Bhopal disaster is to preserve the inherently safer design choice at all costs. Do not try to talk your way out of the design specification on the basis of saving money even when there appears to be a scientific principle that supports it. Attenuation is never as reliable as inherent safety, and the systems you must operate to maintain a less effective hazard mitigation option add costs that tend to exceed the specified approach.

There is nothing fundamentally evil about saving money. If there was then all of us have acted irresponsibly many times. The evil comes from saving money while expecting the same operating flexibility and level of protection represented by the design specification. The inherently safer design option might be more expensive, but the cost for selecting an alternative could be unaffordable.



All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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