Safety Tips for Managing a Plant Outage

Taking a plant offline isn't as easy — or as safe — as flipping a switch.

There are a few reasons a company might need to shut down all or a portion of its plant, such as preventative maintenance or equipment replacement, repurposing the facility (a turnaround) or closing the plant permanently. No matter the reason, a shutdown or turnaround can be a dangerous proposition.

Often, there are additional employees and contractors brought on to help assist in a shutdown, and they might be new to the plant blueprint and safety procedures. Existing employees might be asked to perform new tasks in isolated, confined or hazardous areas of the facility, creating extra risk. Slips and falls may increase because the plant is crowded, everyone’s rushing and they may be fatigued from working long hours. And of course, certain risks are part and parcel of the shutdown process, such as exposure to toxic chemicals, the unexpected release of energy from machines, the collapse of defective equipment while it’s being moved and electrical hazards from defective equipment.

That’s why the careful planning of any outage is critical, and why that planning should include developing, documenting and communicating safety procedures well in advance.

  1. Create a detailed plan that lays out all shutdown activities and identifies the potential risks or hazards. For example, if the plant is being shut down to replace outdated equipment, the machinery could break apart during removal and injure an employee or expose them to toxic chemical leaks. Consider hiring a specialist to test for exposure risk.
  2. Provide project orientation to new field workers and train workers on how to avoid the identified risks. Also instruct them in emergency safety procedures.
  3. Screen new contractors for competence, relevant skills and familiarity with the type of shutdown you’re conducting, and identify who will supervise them. Control access so that only people who need to be in a certain area (or the plant itself, for that matter) can enter. 
  4. Heavy machinery brought in to transport equipment typically poses the greatest risk. Make sure it’s operated only by trained, qualified workers, and appoint spotters to keep an eye out for hazards the operators can't see. 
  5. Lockout and/or unplug equipment. This will prevent machines from restarting unexpectedly, which can result in injuries to employees through electrical shock or limbs being caught in moving parts. For each machine, identify who will take on which tasks (such as lockout) and which energy sources need to be controlled.
  6. Remove hazardous materials or store them in a secure area. Pay special attention to air and gas cylinders, and close their main valves when not in use. Remove regulators and install safety caps each time they're put away.
  7. Develop a communication system with code words or phrases — an emergency situation shorthand — that promotes quick reaction time in emergencies.

Shutdowns are short, hectic and inherently dangerous. The right planning, training and communication can help keep everyone safe. 

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