Industry professionals today use a variety of fluids to accomplish their manufacturing and processing goals. Often, these fluids are corrosive, flammable, or otherwise dangerous, so properly managing them is critical to maintaining a safe and productive work site.
Staff or plant property dangers, including injury, damage, or destruction, can arise when employees accidentally overfill storage tanks. The composition of most fluid management systems generally includes tanks, hoses, connectors, and pumps. Each of these is designed to work harmoniously with the others within the pressurized metrics of the overall system. An inadvertent overfill of one system component, such as a holding tank, puts both the individual element and the entire system at risk of failure.
Examples offer insights
In 2009, oil tanker operators accidentally left a drain valve open while transferring fluid to a series of holding tanks. The open valve allowed more than 200,000 gallons of raw petroleum to leak from the containment tank and flow into a nearby waste treatment plant where an unrated electrical device ignited it. The ensuing explosion measured 2.9 on the Richter scale, destroying 17 oil tanks and damaging over 300 nearby buildings.
Disaster analysis revealed the storage tanks did not have overfill alarms or protections, which was clearly a design flaw. Human error was also a contributing factor as staff had failed to properly monitor a stuck float and tape gauge within one of the tanks. The stuck gauge masked the overfilling of the tank, which was not discovered for more than an hour after the flow had exceeded tank capacity.
Many causes; one remedy
Engineering experts who study the aftermath of overfill disasters find that one of several common circumstances often causes the debacle:
- Poor design — As the above incident from 2009 indicates, fluid management systems are unsafe when they do not include automatic shutoff valves, overfill alarms, and flow restrictors, each of which signals an overfill threat well before it occurs.
- Poor management — Preventing an overfill is not a single goal but rather an ongoing process requiring proper management. A complete system should include frequent risk assessments, an early warning alarm, and spill containment processes. It’s imperative for operators to not only be properly trained but to also to have the tools they need to ensure the prevention system does its job.
- Failure of control systems — Within the prevention system is a series of controls, any one of which could fail and cause the overfill, such as the tape and gauge system that failed in the example above. While monitoring control device life cycles is imperative to ensure they operate at peak efficiency, there is no substitute for regular, methodical inspections.
Safety culture is the best prevention
From designers to employees and management leaders, ensuring safety and overfill prevention is a group effort. Vital to any company’s efforts to minimize these risks is having a strong overall safety culture. Those who invest in high grade equipment and ongoing safety education are far less likely to suffer industrial accidents, including tank overfills.