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Predict risks – avoid accidents

The world is full of factories and facilities that produce energy, industrial raw materials, components, machines, other goods and where waste is handled. Some of these materials can be harmful to humans and the environment, or cause other dangerous situations, for example, in the event of a malfunction. 

Recently a dangerous explosion occurred at Stora Enso’s factory in Kemi, Finland during a process malfunction. The factory had to be shut down as the machinery, the building, and its piping were damaged. Fortunately, in this case, there was no loss of life.

Malfunctions cannot always be prevented, but we can prepare for and plan how we will react should they occur. Even when the potential risks are known the desire to prepare for them is not always there. Why is the safeguarding of human life and the environment not sufficient motivation for such risks to be taken seriously?

In a factory environment, there are generally three elements that require protection: staff, machinery or the facility itself, and the environment. Loss of human life seems to be the most concrete of the three – a factory employee is somebody’s child, parent, or partner. Putting a value on the loss of a human life is an unenviable task, but if pushed to do that, one could roughly estimate the cost to be one million euros. 

Even though the loss of human life is felt more acutely on a personal level, it is production downtime that is feared the most. It is undoubtedly an essential risk from a business perspective. If a critical device breaks, it can take weeks or even months to replace and start up. This scenario is not very attractive. 

Occupational safety legislation obliges employers to ensure the safety of employees. Employees can, as such, expect to always be safe, even in the event of accidents or dangerous situations. However, in which cases is it justifiable not to take note of dangerous situations, or to decide that their prediction and preventative measures are not necessary? In the event of an accident the employer should have evidence that this situation was evaluated from the employees’ perspective, otherwise the law may come down hard on the employer. 

Naturally, nobody wants employees or nature to be harmed by business operations. In an ideal world nothing would go wrong, nor would accidents happen. Reality, however, is different. Potential dangerous situations caused by human error or other unexpected events can trigger explosions and spills. Some chemicals are not hazardous by themselves, but when spread in the air can become flammable. It is also not unheard of that a safety valve or tank starts leaking liquids or gases into the environment. In the worst-case scenario the substances are poisonous and can threaten human lives. In such cases, what is the smallest investment possible that would reduce the harmful effects as much as possible or avoid them completely?

Simulation is a cost-efficient solution when preparing for dangerous situations. Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) can, for example, be used to evaluate different scenarios that can take place in processes and the subsequent events that would result from those scenarios. The information can be used to identify measures that can be taken to minimise the harmful effects resulting from such events. With the help of modelling, threshold limits can also be calculated for the authorities. Almost all chemicals and particles have known threshold limits that allow the evaluation of health and other effects on persons exposed to such materials. This can even be a prerequisite for applications and receiving permits. 

There are very cost-efficient tools and methods available to prepare for risks. It is, nevertheless understandable that operators want to get a new plant up and running as fast as possible and that it is sometimes tempting to forget about risks and look for shortcuts. Why would you want to take a risk like that when CFD can easily and cost-efficiently produce all the information you need to evaluate the risks your operations are exposed to? 

There is no rational argument that supports taking unnecessary risks with your business, the lives of your employees, or the environment. It makes much more sense to make a reasonable investment in safeguarding your business operations from predictable risks and their consequences. 

Author: Heidi Niskanen 

Predict Risks – avoid accidents
There is no rational argument that supports taking unnecessary risks with your business, the lives of your employees, or the environment.
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