As discussed in our first blog post in the safety series detailing the most common safety issues in process manufacturing plants, these can be highly dangerous locations with a number of potential hazards. In the second post in this series, we discussed ways in which predictive analytics and AI can help prevent some of these issues. 

There are a number of safety concerns that appear in every plant, including: 

  • Trips, slips, and falls on wet surfaces or over trailing cables
  • Chemical injuries from contact with corrosive substances
  • Crushing or maiming from heavy machinery or vehicles
  • Sudden energy release during repairs or maintenance to heavy machinery

But there are also certain hazards that are specific to certain industries. Here are some of the main safety issues that bedevil particular types of process plants. 

Work safety

Hazards in Food and Beverage Plants

Inhalation hazards

Although food and beverage (F&B) plants create products intended for human consumption, the production process often involves substances that are hazardous when inhaled. For example, flour isn’t generally considered to be a hazardous substance, but inhaling flour dust can cause asthma. Flour dust and enzymes that contain additives like amylase are the second most common cause of occupational asthma. 

There are also many additives like flavor improvers and spices that are respiratory irritants, and need appropriate control measures to ensure they are used safely. Diacetyl, a flavoring frequently used in F&B plants, has been found to cause obliterative bronchiolitis, which is a form of serious lung disease that causes irreversible damage to the smallest airways in the lungs. 

NIOSH recommends a reference exposure level (REL) of 5 ppb for up to 8 hours a day during a 40-hour work week. 

It’s also recommended to deploy dust extraction units in plants using any hazardous substances, to ensure that employees wear respiratory protective equipment, and to use industrial vacuum cleaners rather than sweeping or dusting the premises. 

Temperature hazards

Employees at F&B plants are at risk of repeated exposure to extreme temperatures, whether that’s extreme heat from ovens and processing systems, or extreme cold in freezers and other food storage units. 

Although there are no regulations limiting temperature exposure, it is important to ensure that employees receive the right clothing and equipment for the job, and aren’t subjected to extreme heat or cold stress. 

Biological hazards

Working in an F&B plant, especially in units that process meat and meat products, can risk exposure to biological hazards from viruses, bacteria, or parasites in animal parts and animal waste. 

Handling animal parts incorrectly can cause infection and disease, so companies need to train employees in safe food handling protocols and regularly review them for compliance. 

Supply chain concerns

For F&B plants, health and safety goes beyond employee working conditions to encompass the entire supply chain. Companies need to be able to track the origin and movements of each ingredient, to be sure that nothing has been contaminated before it arrives at the plant, as well as monitoring the progress of finished products so that they reach their destination in good condition. 

Additionally, full supply chain visibility is vital so that products can be recalled quickly and accurately in the event of contamination or a drop in quality. 

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Hazards in Pharma Plants

Handling hazardous chemicals

Pharma products often involve raw materials which can be corrosive, flammable, and/or emit airborne pollutants. Employees need to be fitted with the right personal protective equipment, and regularly trained in the safe handling of hazardous substances, especially when loading, unloading, or transferring chemicals. 

Another risk that can occur in pharma plants is that of human error when mixing products. Even safe components can cause a dangerous explosion or the emission of toxic gases if they are combined in the wrong way or the wrong proportions. Some common volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include methanol, dichloromethane, toluene, ethylene glycol, n,n dimethylformamide, and acetonitrile. 

Inhalation hazards

Like F&B plants, employees in pharma plants can be at risk from materials which are safe to ingest in pharma products, but which can be harmful when inhaled. Tablets are produced using ground chemicals, but the process can cause dust which can be hazardous when inhaled or if it comes into contact with the eyes. 

For example, paracetamol needs to be ground into powder for tablets, but it can be harmful when inhaled. 

Supply chain 

Pharma companies, like F&B ones, need to ensure they can track the origin, progress, and destination of all their raw materials and finished products, so as to ensure that raw materials are not contaminated and that products can be recalled if needed. 

Raw components need to arrive at the plant not just free from contamination, but also of the expected concentration and quality so that there are no unexpected reactions when substances are mixed. 

Toxic or hazardous waste

It’s estimated that the pharma industry generates around 200kg of waste per metric ton of active ingredients, creating a significant challenge for waste disposal. Industrial waste can be hazardous not just for employees, who should be trained to handle it safely, but also for communities that live near the plants and general waste disposal authorities. 

Pharma waste often contains spent solvents and other toxic organics in high enough concentrations that they need careful treatment before they can be disposed of safely. 

Hazards in Chemical Plants

Chemical plants are potentially dangerous environments, due to the challenges of combining raw materials, often under pressure and high temperatures, to create usable products. If processes are not carefully monitored and measured, they can become hazardous. 

Hazardous substances

There’s an inherent danger in working with many of the substances found at chemical plants. The raw components, the finished product, and the product at certain interim stages of production can be:

  • Flammable
  • Explosive or reactive
  • Corrosive
  • Irritants

It’s also likely that some substances may:

  • Cause chronic organ damage over time
  • Cause an allergic reaction
  • Cause genetic or reproductive harm

Human error

Even when the chemicals themselves are stable and non-hazardous, human error can create significant harm. If employees get the mix wrong, apply the wrong levels of heat, or add materials too quickly or too slowly, the results can be disastrous. 

Storage conditions matter too. Some substances can release poisonous vapors into the air if not stored correctly. 

Hazardous waste

Like pharma plants, chemical plants can generate toxic or hazardous waste which can be dangerous to humans and animals, and/or cause environmental harm, if it’s not disposed of safely. Chemical plant waste can leak solvents and effluents into the wastewater, provoking widespread damage that spreads far beyond the plant itself. 

Hazards in Petroleum and Oil and Gas Refineries

Hazardous waste

Oil and gas refineries and petroleum plants face a particularly acute problem of hazardous waste. It’s estimated that petroleum refineries and large chemical plants produce over 1,000 kg (2,200 pounds) of hazardous wastes per month. These substances can be very difficult to neutralize successfully, and leaks and contamination can cause serious environmental damage to human, animal, and plant life around the factories. 

Hazardous gases

Oil and gas refining can result in the emission of hydrogen sulfide, an odorless gas which can be quickly fatal. The substance occurs naturally in oil and gas wells, and employees who breathe in hydrogen sulfide can be overcome within minutes. 

Process manufacturing safety can never be taken lightly

Every plant shares similar safety issues, and should deploy the same solutions to help deal with them. 

The first and ideal step is to remove the hazard as much as possible, such as designing plants without dangerous sharp corners. Technology can help by reducing the need for human involvement, such as placing a sensor to monitor substance levels in a tank rather than requiring an employee to check them regularly. Automating processes also helps remove the risk of manual errors that can harm human safety, like miscalculating mix ratios. 

When risks can’t be removed entirely, it’s necessary to do all you can to minimize them, such as by placing guards on dangerous machinery to reduce the chances that an employee could become trapped. Effective maintenance is crucial in this regard, from simple actions like replacing non-slip surfacing as soon as it wears out, to using predictive maintenance to keep equipment in peak operating condition. 

For the risks that remain, it’s vital to establish safety protocols and policies, and carry out regular employee training to ensure that best practices are both known and followed. This includes providing and maintaining employee personal protection, including eye guards, protective overalls, and respiratory protection. 

However, as you can see, each industry also has its unique experiences of various safety issues, and needs to create industry-specific protocols to deal with them. 

Whatever the safety issue, AI processes like predictive analytics, predictive maintenance, and predictive monitoring can help by automating processes, reducing human presence, and detecting early signs of emerging incidents so they can be fixed before they cause harm.