Working in the Petrochemicals Industry: Safety Begins Before You Arrive On-Site

Working in the Petrochemicals Industry: Safety Begins Before You Arrive On-Site

Professionals working in the petrochemicals industry, including trade and engineering specialists brought in to work in petrochemical facilities, will be aware that uncompromising standards of safety are nothing less than vital.

Why? Simply because, of course, petrochemical products in their raw state are both toxic and acidic.

We asked our in-house hazardous area equipment experts to explain why sourcing the right heat, light, air and power equipment forms an essential part of preparing for work on a petrochemicals site.

Read on for an introduction to petrochemicals industry safety as well as must-see insights into trusted ways to ‘kit up’ for smarter, safer working.


Created as a result of ‘cracking’ crude oil or natural gas, ie breaking down heavy oil molecules into lighter fractions, petrochemicals are used in countless everyday products from medication to plastics.

Major petrochemicals include acetylene, benzene, ethane, ethylene, methane, propane and hydrogen. From these, hundreds of other chemicals are derived and are used as elastomers, fibres, plasticisers, solvents and feedstock for the production of thousands of other products.

While generally safe in their finished form, in their raw state petrochemicals present engineering and other professionals on a worksite with hazards mainly due to toxic chemical products and associated obnoxious gas fumes. Meaning risks arising include the presence of sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, fugitive hydrocarbons and dust.

The consequences of getting it wrong can be severe and that’s why many engineering and trade professionals carrying out the classroom section of their health and safety training ahead of working for, or in, the petrochemicals industry will have  been told about the tragic Flixborough explosion of 1974.

A Health and Safety Executive case study explains the content of the incident: “a 20 inch bypass system ruptured, which may have been caused by a fire on a nearby 8 inch pipe”.

“This resulted in the escape of a large quantity of cyclohexane. The cyclohexane formed a flammable mixture and subsequently found a source of ignition. At about 16:53 hours there was a massive vapour cloud explosion which caused extensive damage and started numerous fires on the site.”

In an Institute of Chemical Engineers paper published in 1998 to examine major petrochemical and chemical facility accidents since the Flixborough explosion, some common features emerged, including:

• Perceived low risk: “At least two of the accidents involved activities which were not considered to be the main”.

• Routine inspection and maintenance of critical equipment: “Three of the accidents revealed deficiencies in the inspection and maintenance procedures for what turned out to be critical items of plant equipment”.

• Unreliable and inadequate control systems: “Four of the accidents revealed a combination of inadequate and unreliable process control equipment.”

• Loss of process control: “Two of the accidents resulted from runaway reactions.”

The recurring themes are clear: while safety improvements in how petrochemical facilities are operated have been ongoing since the years following Flixborough, checks and maintenance will always be vital onsite.

An essential stage of carrying out this work is the choice of hazardous area-certified equipment to ensure that heat, light, air and power equipment…

• Creates quicker, easier working on site: There’s little replacement for simply spending less time on a hazardous site by using equipment designed to create improved efficiency and safety.

• Adds no risk: The use of, for example, lighting products designed to work with zero ignition risk is non-negotiable.

• Offers exceptional reliability: The margin for error in a hazardous area – such as some sections of a petrochemical site – is essentially non-existent, meaning the equipment used should be incredibly reliable.

See below for a basic overview of the systems used in the modern petrochemicals industry to achieve the best possible standards through safety-focused processes, training and maintenance.


A 2014 article from Health and Safety Middle East magazine offers an excellent summary of the general approach to petrochemical facility safety still in use eight years later.

In his Process Petrochemical Safety overview, Julius Brown explains that “intrinsic safety for the petrochemical plant should use technological measures to eliminate or control risks and to prevent accidents”.

He outlines that this health and safety thinking should be approached from two perspectives: process safety and occupational safety.

In terms of process safety and its protection of ‘the three Ps’ (people, plant and the planet), the article explains the main types of safety systems used in the sector:

• Process Safety System or Process Shutdown System: As well as related shutdown systems

• Fire and gas system: Designed to detect gas, spills and fire, then activate fire protection, signals, environmental changes, exhausting and depressurisation system as appropriate.

Julius Brown points out that petrochemical industry process safety requires active involvement and engagement from top management, enhanced engineering and administrative safeguards plus leading and lagging performance indicators as well as ongoing reviews of post-industrial accident recommendations.

Turning to occupational health and safety, the article comments that “management of occupational health and safety (OHS) risks in the petrochemical industry is a minimum requirement in every workplace”.

“An effective OHS management system can help to establish the framework of compliance with the two fundamental elements of most OHS legislation: that employers provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risk (and) that employees take reasonable care for the health and safety of themselves and others.”

It goes on to recommend some essential “safety culture comments”

• Commitment: Including “employee perception of an organisation’s commitment to safety”.

• Involvement: As “greater the involvement of employees in safety, the better”.

• Competence: Combining “knowledge, experience and skills”.

• Compliance: Put simply, “failure to comply with procedures or safety precautions should not be negotiable”.

• Accountability: Going further than safety in operatives’ everyday tasks to ensure “to identifying and addressing problems or potential hazards elsewhere in the workplace”.

• Communication: Dissemination of safety information “should include top to bottom and bi-directional communication, through both formal and informal channels”. Plus, an ‘open door’ atmosphere of open communication should exist.

• Learning: Including “comprehensive and ongoing” training sessions with continuous learning used to maintain momentum.

• Trust: Because employees “need to feel comfortable and secure when questioning safety”, a ‘no blame’ culture should exist.

• Recognition: The article notes that “positive reinforcement through recognition is a powerful tool in changing the safety culture”.

• Group mentality: Leveraging the thinking that “if the majority of the group demonstrates positive safety behaviours, it will not only be easier to bring others in line with this behaviour, but new staff will be inclined to fall in line with what they will view as the normal behaviour for that workplace”.

A Health and Safety Executive case study into the successful introduction of a behavioural safety programme at Huntsman Petrochemicals, introduced after near-miss incidents were noted, reinforces many of these points.

The case study explains how target setting, open communication, feedback to all staff plus training of colleagues to work as observers and coordinators all contributed to some substantial safety and business benefits:

• Improved injury rates: No OSHA recordable injuries in the 18 months prior to the case study being written.

• Improved safety awareness: Thanks to “improved awareness of the influence of behaviour on individual’s safety”.

• Improved safety engagement: With all employees making “a more proactive contribution to safety management”.

• Improved steam leak costs: Amounting to “£250,000 per year saving in steam leaks through identifying and making repairs” and a reduction in energy consumption directly reduces taxes incurred via Climate Change Levy.

• Improved insurance premiums: A 32% reduction in Huntsman’s insurance premiums in one year was recorded.

• Improved operating costs: With “significant reductions in operating costs” occurring as “workers identify and rectify plant problems themselves”.

Keep reading to find out, in our final section, how essential projects in petrochemical facilities can benefit hugely from high-performance plug and play equipment.


Our equipment specialists strongly recommend using hazardous area certified, uncompromisingly high-quality portable equipment when working on petrochemical industry tasks.

The reason why easy-to-use and transport heat, light, air and power kit is so important? Simply because the ability to access heat, working (and emergency) lighting, clean air and safe power is essential.

Plus, as well as exceptional usability equipment must be purpose-designed for outstanding reliability and assured safety in conditions such as dusty, fume or odour-filled environments.

The right kit will be especially important for tasks including:

• Shutdowns/ turnarounds

• Repair and maintenance

• Inspections

Therefore, the benefits of the following ATEX, IECEx, UKCA and INMETRO certified equipment should be assessed:

• Portable EX lighting: Look for plug & play capability with enhanced illumination levels, wide light output and overall cost-savings

• Portable EX power distribution: Features to seek out include the ability to choose from multiple configurations and practical considerations including shock-absorbing performance and full fuse protection.

• Portable EX ventilation: Because the right rig can turn an inhospitable, dangerous environment into a safe workplace, find out how the right combination of hazardous-area certified fans, filtration units, ducting and accessories can be used on-site for increased safety and efficiency.

• Portable EX heating: Essential to maintain efficient operations and reduce the risk of equipment failure, high-quality EX heating equipment can protect compressors, pipework and pumps with full plug and plug capability.