Handle With Care

Manufacturing and transporting ethanol requires the utmost caution. Though rare, spills and injuries can and do occur. Safety advocates stress that forming and sticking to a safety plan is necessary and productive to any ethanol operation.
By Dave Nilles | August 01, 2006
A common sign welcoming workers and visitors at many manufacturing or industrial facilities begins with: "Days Without Lost Time Accident." Of course, the higher the number following that phrase the better. It's a constant reminder of a facility's safety track record.

All ethanol plant managers strive to provide a safe working environment for their employees. With more ethanol plants coming on line seemingly every week, there are more inexperienced operators joining the work force. Therefore, employee safety is becoming an increasingly important topic to the industry.
Likewise, rail safety is becoming a bigger issue as the industry expands. A majority of ethanol gets shipped from plants in 29,000-gallon rail tankers. More rail-shipped ethanol naturally leads to the possibility of more leaks and accidents.

Plant personnel and railcar safety were discussed in-depth during "Shop Talk IV: Plant and Railcar Safety and Compliance," on June 22. Here's a glimpse at the discussion.

RFA Focuses on Safety
As the voice of the fuel ethanol industry, the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) has assembled several working committees designed to tackle pressing industry topics. One of its most recent, the Plant & Employee Safety Committee, has only held a handful of meetings, but has already issued valuable information, much of which is available at the RFA Web site, www.ethanolrfa.org.

Samantha Evans, quality and environmental manager for Abengoa Bioenergy, said the committee has identified several issues pertaining to the implementation of a safety and health program. She said companies should promote a strong safety culture by designating a safety coordinator and providing employees with reference manuals and safety resources. Evans also suggested that companies establish a health and safety budget while providing training for both new and veteran employees.
There are a variety of safety and health program tools that plants can implement, Evans said. Incentive and awareness programs help boost morale and increase awareness.

Evans said every incident and near-miss needs to be reported and investigated. An accepted safety norm is that for each injury reported, approximately 600 near misses occur.

The RFA Plant & Employee Safety Committee is working to build alliances with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). The committee is also developing recommendations that will assist ethanol plants in developing process safety management systems. Evans said the committee would eventually expand its scope, addressing a wide array of environmental concerns including the establishment of an ethanol plant safety and health compliance guide.

Using OSHA as a Resource
While OSHA may stir up negative connotations, most safety experts agree that it's imperative to actively work with the association. Todd Huegli, vice president of Safety Management Inc., said ethanol producers should be using OSHA as a resource. "Many people view OSHA as an adversarial program," he said. "But the sooner you come to grips with working with them, the better things will be."

Safety Management Inc. is an Omaha, Neb.-based company specializing in safety services, such as the development and implementation of safety programs, incident investigation, OSHA citation assistance, and process safety management, among other items.

Huegli pointed out that OSHA offers consultation programs and answers implementation questions. Those programs may aid in filling out OSHA-required forms and recordkeeping, he said.

Ethanol producers should also be aware of OSHA's general duty clause, Huegli said. If a recognizable hazard exists that isn't otherwise covered by OSHA regulations, inspectors can still issue a citation for the hazard.

Huegli concluded that an ethanol plant's management needs to set its safety standards in-house. Stringent safety precautions are most effective if held at the employee level. He said ethanol plants should conduct process hazard analyses and compliance audits on a regular basis.

Rail Concerns Rise with Expansion
William Schoonover, staff director for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), said ethanol is quickly becoming a vital portion of the nation's rail system. However, the industry is fighting for already-tight track space. Schoonover said there are approximately 170,000 miles of rail track in the United States with 20,000 locomotives hauling 1.3 million railcars. Of those cars, approximately 275,000 are tankers capable of hauling ethanol. "It's an extensive network, yet quite small considering what we're moving," Schoonover said.

Ethanol producers are getting recognized for their safety on the nation's tracks. BNSF Railway, which is a subsidiary of Burlington Northern Sante Fe Corp., annually presents companies with safety awards. This spring, its Annual Product Stewardship Award for the safe transportation of hazardous materials by rail went to several ethanol companies including Abengoa Bioenergy Corp., AGP Corn Processing Inc., Chief Ethanol Fuels Inc., Dakota Ethanol, Great Plains Ethanol LLC, Husker Ag LLC, James Valley Ethanol LLC, KAAPA Ethanol LLC, Sioux River Ethanol and U.S. BioEnergy.

While these and other producers conduct safe ethanol loading practices, leaks do unfortunately occur.

Ethanol Leaks Increase
The fuel ethanol industry is expanding precipitously. As it does, the need for railcar tankers increases stride-for-stride. Schoonover said the rail industry is building 4,000 to 5,000 railcars every year specifically for shipping ethanol.

While more railcars are good news, the bad news comes with the potential for more tanker leaks. There are sporadic media reports of cars that have dropped part, or most, of their loads. There are 1.7 million shipments of hazardous materials in the United States each year, and the number of non-accident related alcohol releases is on the rise. In 2001, there were 17 such releases compared to 67 in 2005. Schoonover attributes much of that to the expanding ethanol industry.

To combat ethanol and other materials leaking from railcars, the FRA conducted "Operation Stopleak" to help address the problem. Investigators analyzed leak sources and addressed concerns on local and national levels. "We're making major steps so that people, as they come on line, have the tools they need," Schoonover said.
The operation to analyze leaks concluded that the main source of leaks in tanker cars were valves, according to Schoonover. Manway and bottom outlets were common instigators. Schoonover said the most common problems with manway covers was the gaskets getting pinched or installed incorrectly, or the bolts being over-or under-tightened.

Manway gaskets can be attacked by chemically aggressive product in transport. Gasket "creep" and railcar vibration will also cause fasteners retaining a manway cover to loosen over time.

In the case of railcar manways, updated inspection procedures sometimes require a pressure test of the sealed railcar, so gasket performance has become more demanding.

Other problems included bottom outlet caps left on during railcar loading and inadequate railcar-loading training.

BNSF uses an extensive emergency responder team to monitor and respond to accidents. They are trained and outfitted to handle major and small non-accident releases. The company works closely with its ethanol customers on a regular basis to ensure safe transport, according to BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg.

Schoonover said there are several enforcement options the FRA uses to ensure compliance with reporting leaks. Civil and criminal penalties can and are issued for spills and accidents, but Schoonover prefers to use a different approach. "The primary enforcement is education," he said.

Schoonover said the FRA is working with the RFA and rail service providers to set aside research funding to solve the industry's shared problems. The FRA has also developed a National Rail Safety Action Plan, which can be found at www.fra.dot.gov.

The cooperation between the FRA, RFA and OSHA is needed to ensure safety is a top concern in the ethanol industry, according to Evans. From within the plant to on the rails, safety concerns appear to be a growing issue in the ethanol industry.

Dave Nilles is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach him at dnilles@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 373-0636.