Power Plant Tragedies Bring Safety to the Forefront

Power plants are inherently dangerous. Although safety is taken very seriously at most facilities, every year workers around the world are killed on the job by electrocution, falls, explosions, fires, and while working in confined spaces. Many more are injured through various less-extreme accidents.

Recent Incidents Are Risk Reminders

On November 1, an explosion and fire at NTPC’s Feroze Gandhi Unchahar Thermal Power Station in India killed 43 people and injured many more. The incident investigation will take some time to complete, but an NTPC official reportedly said pressure inside the boiler reached 70 times normal operating pressure prior to the blast. An emergency shut-off mechanism apparently failed to actuate, causing the explosion, which resulted in pressurized steam and hot flue gases overwhelming dozens of workers.

In another incident, this one on June 29 at the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach, Florida, five workers were killed while trying to unplug a slag tank blockage under the plant’s Unit 2 boiler. The workers were water-blasting through a “doghouse door” while the unit was online. Local media sources reported that about 20 minutes into the job, molten slag, which can reach temperatures above 1,000F, burst through the door, burning the workers severely. Two died at the scene and three perished later as a result of their injuries.

Close Calls

For me, the news of those incidents brought back memories of near misses in my past. When I was the operations and maintenance manager at a biomass plant in the Midwest, our boiler experienced a significant wall tube rupture that blew the corner of the boiler apart, releasing high-pressure steam and flue gases into the boiler building. Fortunately, the incident occurred on the night shift when only a few operators were onsite. Although one worker had been in the area doing rounds roughly 30 minutes earlier, no one was in the immediate vicinity when the tube ruptured.

The burst was unexpected to say the least. The boiler was relatively new, having only been in service for perhaps a couple of years prior to the incident. The cause was sootblower erosion, which had resulted due to excessive settings being established during commissioning. Wall blowers on the two lowest levels of the furnace were being operated at higher-than-necessary pressures, on a more-often-than-required frequency, performing double sweeps during each actuation in an effort to keep wall tubes spotless. The commissioning contractor believed the extreme level of cleanliness was necessary in order to meet performance guarantees. However, the steam from the wall blowers was reaching the corner tubes, eroding them significantly and causing the premature failure.

Another incident from my past that could have been tragic if someone had been in the wrong place at the wrong time occurred when a boiler gauge glass burst. I don’t have a good explanation for why it failed, but I can tell you that the noise near the boiler drum following the break could easily have been mistaken for a jumbo jet taking off. I personally isolated the gauge, using chain operators from two decks below. Fragments of glass speckled the wall some 25 feet away. Thankfully, no one was nearby when the burst occurred.

My point is that risks abound throughout power plants, even in areas that workers may consider to be reasonably safe. In the military, recruits are often told to “Keep your head on a swivel.” It means to keep your eyes open and be keenly aware of everything that’s going on around you. Those words are worth remembering when a person is in a power plant. Workers must always pay attention to their surroundings and watch for potential danger lurking nearby. Never put yourself in the line of fire.

I don’t think anyone wants to be injured on the job, and I seriously doubt that any manager or supervisor wants to see a worker get hurt. Unfortunately, sometimes the pressure to get things done or keep a unit online leads people to make bad decisions. I’ve been there, and I know it can happen to almost anyone.

Managing Contractor Safety

While permanent plant staff should be familiar with a station’s safety policies and procedures, contractors may not be intimately acquainted with all of the rules. Additionally, contractors may not be aware of the plant layout or all of the safety equipment and systems available in various areas. For those reasons, managers and supervisors may want to spend extra time ensuring contractors have a firm grasp of the plant’s safety expectations, and monitor their work more closely for potential safety deficiencies.

A recent survey conducted by ISN Analytics titled “Contractor Management Strategy: Insights from a Survey of Decision Makers” found that improving the safety performance of contractors was a top priority driving contractor management goals.

“The survey data confirms what we’ve seen in the industry; leading organizations drive a safety-first culture and maintain a documented strategic plan for their contractor management objectives,” Dag Yemenu, senior vice president of technical services at ISN, said in a release announcing the survey results.

The survey categorized each organization into one of five stages of contractor management process maturity. Of those ranked as “Leading” organizations, a focus on safety was a common attribute. In addition to driving a safety-first culture, the leaders were said to “report leading metrics of performance,” including near misses, audit findings, and culture and perception survey findings. And perhaps most significantly, the leading organizations did not feel challenged to garner the support and commitment of management.

“By establishing a clear communication strategy, incorporating a risk-ranking process and integrating internal business processes, a sustainable contractor management system is one that enables you to meet your safety and compliance objectives while promoting a culture of transparency, partnership and continuous improvement,” Yemenu concluded. ■

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.