Robb Parrott had seen enough. After spending 20 years as an operator in the oil and gas industry, he had witnessed multiple incidents, near misses and honest mistakes where flanges were taken apart when they were still live and under pressure. The final straw was an accidental release at the plant where Parrott worked that left a colleague with serious burns on his face and neck. He was in the hospital for weeks.
“He pulled a part of a line that was just over 200 C, 1500 kPa pressure and it was pretty much the heaviest tar we had. It sprayed everywhere. It was just a little one-and-a-half inch line; it was nothing,” says Parrott. “(But) it was the closest we had seen without a fatality. We couldn’t believe the guy lived.”
The solution put in place at the multinational oil and gas company was terrible, Parrott says.
“They changed our whole safety protocol. They tried to roll out something that was safe to the nth degree and they rolled it out too fast, and this whole thing they tried to... cover it with paperwork, so it just became a nightmare,” he says. “This happened at a world-class facility with multiple levels of safety. It still is. It’s a really safe place to work — one of the safest places I have ever worked — and this still happened there.”
Discouraged by the company’s solution, Parrott got together with a couple of co-workers to brainstorm a better way to stop these types of incidents.
“We knew for sure there had to be a physical barrier. Just like the locks on the electrical breaker,” says Parrott. “So the three of us, we went into my garage with a MIG welder and a beer fridge.”
They came up with the flange lock: a metal device that goes across the flanges and securely attaches to nuts on either side that the worker locks in place with his padlock. Flange locks can be easily adapted for vessel heads, flush blinds, manways or any inline equipment that gets higher than average service. The locks let maintenance workers know which one is online and which one is ready for service.
“It’s a physical guarantee that you can’t take anything apart until it’s ready. It’s like the child lock on the medicine cabinet; it’s the last line of protection,” says Parrott, who is the vice-president of marketing for Intego Industrial Safety in Spruce Grove, Alta. “We haven’t had that for bolted flanges before, but now you have a physical barrier that physically prevents people from hurting themselves.”
The flange locks are available with signs that spell out the hazard for the worker. When the lock is on, a red stop sign can be affixed with warning messages (such as “Stop: Live Equipment”), SDS information, commodity information or any wording the company desires.
As it stands now, when a pipeline maintenance worker is working on a line, he needs to insert a blind to block off the flow of substances and isolate the section of the pipe to be worked on. To ensure blinds are not prematurely removed, workers are required to use a tagout system.
However, there are issues with tagout procedures. For starters, the tag can fall off or deteriorate.
“Some of the things I have heard and seen personally is in some of these environments, that could be outdoors in very harsh environments, how does the tag hold up? Can it stay on? It could be on a zip tie or wired to a bolt but does it remain in that location?” says John Teece, senior product manager for safety products at Master Lock in Oak Creek, Wis., which manufactures a blind flange lockout device.
The physical presence of the locks offers better communication than tagout, says Teece. For example, a tag that says “Do not remove” or “Locked out” does not offer any information about how many workers are working on the line.
“There might be 15 people downstream working on this. And then two hours later, 13, and going into second shift, it’s six. That tag doesn’t communicate that, where a padlock communicates there’s a person downstream who basically is personally signifying they’re engaged in the lockout,” Teece says. “The padlock not only provides the security there but it provides a viable means for communicating that.”
Having a physical lock also helps prevent shortcuts, says Patrick Smyth, vice-president of safety and engineering at the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association in Calgary.
“If someone comes in and they say ‘Oh it’s only a real quick job that I have to do,’ perhaps they will bypass the procedure and not tag it out. It’s the shortcuts that get you into trouble,” he says.
Smyth was excited when he came across the Intego Flange Lock because it provides an extra layer of control. Instead of relying on the administrative control of tagout, it goes one step up the hierarchy to providing an engineering control.
“This takes away the guessing. Has everyone put a tag on there? Has everyone removed their tag? And, if it’s locked out like this and everyone associated with any work puts their lock on it as well, then there is no ambiguity. Once all those locks are removed then you know the individual the lock is assigned to has completed their work and essentially cleared the location,” says Smyth. “I would see this lockout mechanism as more of a fail safe… From the perspective of a safety guy, this is awesome.”
But whether it’s a tagout or a lockout, human factors still play a role. When Smyth was working in pulp mills years ago, he recalls one evening when his colleague got a knock on his hotel door at 3 a.m. His tag was still on the pressure vessel but the guys were ready to close it up.
“Any time you’re relying on individuals to do something, especially if they’re working 12-hour days, seven days a week, the human factor component plays into this. They could have all the training that is necessary; they could understand the procedure and if something just goes a little awry and, say, they are tired at the end of the day, then they walk away and they forgot to take their tag or lock off,” he says. “There is a degree of uncertainly that resides with whoever is managing the project.”
While legislation and codes require every facility to have systems in place to control hazardous energy, they do not specify what that system needs to look like, so they vary widely. Some will put a paper tag on flanges to be worked on, while others will do barrier tagging, which places tags on the isolation valves and allows work on all flanges within that system, says Parrott.
This poses a problem for maintenance workers as they go from plant to plant.
“Maintenance people are a lot more transient these days. They used to work on the same equipment all the time and they got used to it. They knew what was happening and it was very predictable, but now, they are moving around a lot more, so they are working on different equipment all the time,” says Parrott.
All these different variables inspired Parrott and his colleagues to invent the flange lock. When the electrical lock came in, it didn’t matter what system was in place; if the lock was on the breaker, the worker didn’t touch it, Parrott says. That same logic applies to the flange lock.
“If we get them to use things like physical barriers, like the electricians with their locks, and give them some skills to be able to read different systems and know what’s going on and how to protect themselves, we can make them safer no matter what they’re working on or where they’re working,” says Parrott.
One benefit of the current tagout system is that there are multiple people involved — the foreman, operator, planner — and they are supposed to be providing checks and re-checks to make sure the work is being done safely and correctly. Unfortunately, this is also a limitation, says Parrott.
“It’s kind of like that kids’ game, Telephone. You pass along information, pass along the information and it can get distorted, so you end up having multiple people involved and just relying on communication from multiple people is a limitation because you can get the information wrong.”
Tags can also be misinterpreted or ignored, says Parrott. During a shutdown, for example, there are a plethora of tags being used because there is so much work going on and they can be overlooked.
Another benefit of having a physical lock on the flange is that it cannot be taken off by anyone other than the keyholder, says Teece.
“Ensuring that there’s one lock, one person, one key, so that person with the key is the only one that can release the lockout, that doesn’t happen when just a blind is involved because if anybody has the proper sized wrench, they are capable of removing that blind.”
When proper procedures are not followed, workers down the line can be exposed to chemicals, flammable gases, oil and steam. This can result in burning, blistering, irritation, respiratory issues, suffocation and even death. Additionally, high-pressure contents can lead to cuts or amputation.
“If a blind flange is not used properly and they are just relying on upstream and downstream flanges to have shut off the flow of energy, if inadvertently one of those flanges is opened while they are still conducting maintenance activity on the flange in question, they would be exposing those workers to a hazard,” says Smyth.
Explosion is also a serious risk as many workers will be conducting welding or grinding work.
One high-profile case was an explosion at Nexen’s Long Lake facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., that killed two employees in January 2016. This was the worst-case scenario that truly drives home the need for a flange lock, says Parrott.
“Two guys died because they unbolted the wrong flange. They were pros; one was 30, one was 52. These guys were journeymen pipefitters and they made a mistake,” he says.
But the majority of these incidents don’t result in fatalities and they don’t make the newspaper. They end up in internal documents that the public will never see. They are referred to as some version of “Learning from Incidents” training, says Parrott.
Almost every operator has a story of workers who were about to start work on the wrong line, says Parrott. He recalls one day where he caught workers just in time — they were about to unbolt a live sour line. Physical locks would hopefully help prevent mistakes like this.
“You hear stories like, ‘There were two pumps and one had all the tags on it, the other one didn’t and was running and they started unbolting the other one and I don’t know why.’ And you talk to the maintenance guys, and they don’t know why,” Parrott says.
When it comes to leaks, the majority are caused by mechanical error but some are caused by human error, such as the wrong blind being pulled. Leaks can not only result in injuries, they can also lead to negative press for the company and hurt its reputation, says Parrott. The company will not be able to attract top talent because word will get around in the industry of it being an unsafe place to work, he adds.
Leaks can also cause harm to the environment and bring steep costs with it.
“Cleanup is very expensive and then while you’re cleaning that up, that equipment won’t be working, so process downtime is very expensive. And environmental reporting, when you start bringing in the government and you have to have inspectors, the equipment has to stay down longer, so environmental reporting is also very expensive,” says Parrott.
Depending on the nature and amount of the spill, companies can be subject to hefty government fines.
Parrott believes it’s just a matter of time before accounting catches up with safety.
“We didn’t have to have electrical breakers until the U.S. brought in legislation in 1989. They realized killing people was bad and that it costs about $1 million when it happens, so a $5 lock seemed like a reasonable expense to stop that,” he says.
A flange lock is not just useful in the oil and gas industry. It can be used in plants and other facilities where pipes connect to one another, to a pressure vessel or to a valve.
Safety professionals in the atomic industry, pharmaceutical manufacturing and even municipalities have expressed interest in having a physical device to lockout flanges.
“In curling rinks and arenas they are dealing with ammonia. With their swimming pools, they are dealing with chlorine and all of these have bolted flanges that have to be blinded off at one time or another,” says Parrott.
After Parrott and his colleagues came up with the idea for the flange lock four years ago, they read a lot of books for entrepreneurs and got help from the Northern Alberta Business Incubator as well as TEC Edmonton. They officially launched the product in June 2016 at the Global Petroleum Show in Calgary, and Parrott admits that product development was the “hardest thing ever.” His dream is to see the flange lock stop incidents and save lives — and quit his job as a process operator and run Intego full time.
He has put in calls to Alberta Occupational Health and Safety as well as to his MLA to try to discuss legislative changes that would require specifically locking out bolted flanges before conducting work.
“I am starting to ask some questions as to can we change this? Can we improve this?” says Parrott. “Can we take our systems to a world-class level and start doing things people aren’t doing yet that make us better than the rest of the world?”
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2017 issue of COS.