If a plant is changing hands, the prospective owners will want to know whether they are getting their money

How Mechanical Integrity Inspections Can Help Meet OH&S Goals

Everything wears out eventually. Our work can help determine when that "eventually" might be—the operational life expectancy.

Many OH&S professionals are accustomed to push-back from other departments in their organization when they suggest that a piece of equipment is unsafe and must be taken out of service. Operations people get concerned about meeting their production targets, the sales department is worried about shipping on time to a valued customer, and accounting gets upset about the lost revenue.

The OH&S professional has worked hard to develop a culture of safety awareness and an understanding that operating safely is one of the company's primary goals. Every facility owner wants knowledgeable, attentive employees who are empowered to stop work if they feel an unsafe condition exists. In order to reduce risk and gain support from the other stakeholders in the company, equipment shutdowns must be based on recognized and accepted good engineering practice.

You can gain this through working with external mechanical integrity inspectors in a strategic way. This article gives the view of a mechanical integrity inspector who has worked with many OH&S professionals to help keep workplaces safe.

Helping to Meet Your Company's Regulatory Obligations
As inspectors, the most frequent reason we get called in is due to the need for regular professional inspections to meet federal, state, or local safety regulations. This could be OSHA's process safety management, EPA's spill prevention control and countermeasures, or a state-regulated storage tank program. These inspections can cover a wide range of issues, depending on what's being inspected—a pressure vessel, a storage tank, a pipeline, a boiler, or another piece of equipment. So each inspection is different in terms of what we're looking for, based on the type of equipment and the requirements of the regulatory standard that we are using.

We can do our work most effectively, allowing your operations to return to normal as soon as possible, if:

  • Any equipment that needs to be taken out of service for inspection has been shut down, locked out, and isolated for safety, particularly if it is a piece of equipment that we will need to enter in order to perform the inspection.
  • Equipment that is excessively hot or cold has been given time to reach a workable temperature.
  • Obstructive coatings of oil, product residue, ice buildup, or other material, etc., have been cleaned to permit an unobstructed evaluation of the equipment.
  • Specifications for the equipment are available, including manufacturer's data report, construction drawings, and details about previous inspections and repair history.

Here's why that last point matters. Consider, for example, a pressure vessel rated for 200 psi of internal pressure. We'll calculate the minimum thickness of the shell and the heads and determine whether there is still adequate thickness and that it is not corroded away below the standard required. But in order to perform those calculations, we need to know the strength of the material from which it was built. If we don't have the original drawings to indicate that this was built out of a given type of steel, we will need to make conservative assumptions.

As a result, we may need to report that, based on available information, that piece of equipment isn't fit for service. However, if we knew that the material was a higher-strength steel, and we could confirm that, then we could say (provided other conditions are met) that your vessel is fit for service.

Sometimes we get called in to check a circuit of piping that "looks bad," and it does—rust has exfoliated and expanded all along its length. However, after cleaning up the pipe, we'll perform ultrasonic thickness testing and carry out fitness for service calculations based on the data. In some cases, we'll determine that the pipe has lost only a small amount of thickness and is in fact safe to operate.

Going Beyond the Regulations to Gain Operational Insights
We find that some of the companies we work with have found ways to gain additional value from the inspection, which help other parts of the organization meet their goals. This helps OH&S professionals gain support for the times they have ordered a mechanical integrity inspection.

Some examples:

Prevention is better than cure: Sometimes, we get called in by OH&S managers who are concerned about the safety of a piece of equipment, and they just want it checked over. Because we encounter a wide range of equipment in the course of our work and have a good idea of what can go wrong, we are often able to help discover potential problems. We also may be able to reassure the manager that there does not seem to be any cause for concern, as in the example of the visibly corroded pipe earlier.

Helping meet environmental compliance requirements: Failure to comply with environmental regulations—such as by having an unscheduled release of a regulated liquid or gas—can result in potential employee exposure, investigations, and sanctions such as fines. Having equipment tested for safety can have a secondary benefit, helping ensure that environmental regulations are met.

Determining operational life expectancy: Everything wears out eventually. Our work can help determine when that "eventually" might be—the operational life expectancy. Sometimes, we can point to changes that might be made—installation of a new protective coating or some weld overlay, for example—to increase that lifespan.

Boosting productivity: After inspection, we may be able to determine that the throughput of a process could be increased, because the equipment involved is actually rated at a higher pressure or capacity than it is being used for.

Planning capital expenditures: Finance departments need to know well ahead of time if they need to budget for a major capital expenditure. To this end, mechanical integrity reports can help them determine the likely timing of those expenditures by understanding the lifespan of the equipment they have.

Putting a price on it: If a plant is changing hands, the prospective owners will want to know whether they are getting their money's worth and that their assets won't pose an imminent safety or environmental liability. This includes the value, expected lifespan, and maximum throughput of the equipment they're acquiring. Having a good database of credible, third-party mechanical integrity reports can give them confidence that they are putting a true value on the company's assets.

Being seen as an employer that cares about safety: Frequent mechanical integrity inspections help flag potential safety issues, such as a leaking tank or pressure vessel, before they become serious. This creates a safer workplace. It also demonstrates to employees that their company cares about their safety, helping with worker recruitment and retention.

Working with you to help extend equipment life: Many times, we've had to give a manager some bad news: that a piece of equipment is nearing the end of its service life. However, we're sometimes in position to turn that into better news by helping determine what changes could be made to lengthen that service life. This might involve replacing a worn flange, weld overlay of some pitting, or replacing a corroded area of a shell to keep the equipment in compliance. Based on our experience in the field, we're often able to help put together a repair plan for making the equipment both compliant with applicable codes and workable for the repair contractor and customer.

Helping OH&S Professionals Get the Resources to Do Their Work
The reasons above can help OH&S professionals build allies within other departments.

For example, consider the environmental compliance aspect. By understanding the applicable environmental regulations and the potential costs of being in violation, OH&S professionals can show that they have common cause with their colleagues on the environmental side. Reducing loss of integrity events creates positive impacts throughout the organization. Potential injuries and exposures are reduced, process reliability and uptime are increased, the expenses of unplanned maintenance are avoided, and the importance of safety culture is reinforced. It's all about managing risk—in this case, both safety and environmental risks.

As we saw above, mechanical integrity inspections also can support the work of the finance department in planning capital expenditures and in demonstrating the financial value of the company's physical assets.

Being seen as a good place to work helps HR meet their goals, as well, by being able to attract and retain the best employees.

Clearly, mechanical integrity reports are essential for meeting regulatory obligations, but OH&S professionals can go beyond, to helping meet other goals of the organization, as well.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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