Tuesday | January 23, 2018

Watch Out for Combined Plant Dangers

The asphalt plant and surrounding yard can be a dangerous work environment. Accidents happen far too often when workers don’t pay attention to details, aren’t taught good safety practices or become complacent over time. Most accidents can be traced to the same root cause: production needs supersede common sense safety practices. Let’s take a look at one such case in the northwestern United States.

The crew oriented the Madsen 6,000-pound batch plant with the dryer running north to south and the hot-stone elevator on the east side. Under the pressure of spring start-up production quotas, the plant had been operating 16 hours a day for almost two weeks when a terrible accident occurred.
Sometime in the week prior to the accident, the burner fuel pump had developed a leak. The leak was located within 10 feet of the burner and had spilled enough fuel to soak the ground under the burner.

At high production rates, the seals on the hot-stone elevator leaked prodigious amounts of fines. On the day of the accident, a 40 mph east wind drove these fines into the burner air stream where the extreme heat vitrified it. Finally, a glowing red-hot clinker fell onto the diesel-soaked ground, igniting the soil.

Hot Stone Elevator Seal #1

Performing regular walk-arounds to find and repair problems at the plant can prevent minor leaks or alignment issues from becoming major catastrophes. Make sure something as simple as hot-stone elevator seals look as good as they do in this photo. On their own, a few leaking seals might cost some money in fuel use, or they might throw off quality control and add to other problems ground personnel need to address immediately. Photo courtesy of Gencor

The flames rapidly burned through the fuel lines that fed the burner fuel pump. The spreading flames quickly consumed the wiring that fed everything from the dryer back.

Luckily, the operator had the presence of mind to run out and close the valve on his burner fuel tank. The good news in this story is that no one was hurt. The bad news is the plant was out of action for almost a week.

As has been the case in recent articles, the accident at this plant can be traced directly to a lack of proper maintenance. In this story, two events combined to create a hazardous condition—the leaking fuel line and the leaking hot-stone elevator shaft seal.

By itself, neither problem would be life-threatening. The leaking fuel line would get a rise out of any environmental inspector. Together the leaks were a blueprint for disaster. With a simple walk-around maintenance schedule, the crew could have caught these problems and scheduled them for immediate repair. The ground would have remained clean and clear; the personnel would have been safe from life-threatening burns or explosions; the equipment would have been saved from expensive damage.

Two things can work together at your asphalt plant to increase safety: common sense and a safety program that includes mandatory meetings to discuss safety protocols. Management should make an effort to discuss other issues in addition to the basic things such as the need for hard hats, eye protection and proper clothing. Just keep in mind that common sense and safety rules can get pushed aside when employees feel the pressure for production. Make sure employees know that your company values their safety above production quotas.

Hot Stone Elevator #2

Here’s the back side of the hot stone elevator seal. Again, cleanliness lets you see if any leaks or problems that need attention have developed. Photo courtesy of Gencor

A common thread in asphalt plant accidents is a disregard for safety issues in deference to production pressures. Asphalt plant operators often feel tremendous pressure to produce by any means possible. Unfortunately, this shifts the focus off safety and onto money without anyone realizing it’s happened.

A clear-cut set of guidelines dealing with the company’s policy on safety issues should be drawn up and distributed to everyone involved with the plant. Be sure to include the paving superintendent so he or she doesn’t unknowingly exert pressure on the plant operator.

Remember: Everyone wants to do a good job that the state inspector or owner/agency will approve. Sometimes employees go to great lengths to get results. To that end, conditions are overlooked that would never be overlooked or forgotten under normal circumstances. When dealing with safety issues, one must keep in mind the fact that you need to be safe all the time; you need only be careless once for tragedy to strike.

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