Storm detection: advanced risk management in the petrochemical industry

Local detection of thunderstorms helps to prevent accidents caused by lightning strikes. In an sector such as the petrochemical industry, where human and material resources are subject to safety risks such as explosions, fires and toxic leaks, efficient action plans should be drawn up to eliminate or reduce the risk of lightning storms. The decision to stop or resume work in the event of a thunderstorm risk should not be taken subjectively when deaths and injuries to people on site, damage to infrastructure and even environmental disasters can occur.

Adverse weather conditions are a significant factor endangering the integrity of the chemical and petrochemical sectors. As a general rule, the chemical sector is vulnerable to three types of phenomena1:

  •  Mechanical type phenomena: pressure waves or projectiles, derived from explosions.
  •  Thermal type phenomena: fires and thermal radiation.
  •  Chemical type phenomena: Leaks or uncontrolled spillage of hazardous substances.

For all these scenarios, there are Emergency Plans in which different groups of people intervene, from the intervention team, through to the chemical safety team, health team and the support teams. However, many companies in these sectors do not have a specific protocol for dealing with the threat of thunderstorms.

Facilities in the Oil&Gas and chemical sectors are exposed to greater danger because they are large infrastructures in wide open areas, inside which flammable or explosive materials are stored and which, in turn, produce flammable or explosive emissions. Work in these plants is continuous, involving a large number of employees in open spaces, especially during maintenance activities.

For all these reasons, chemical and petrochemical plants are included as a hazardous location for the risk of lightning strikes in the IEC 62793:2020 standard “Protection against lightning – Storm warning system “2. This standard considers the need for a storm detection system, according to the types of loss that can arise (to people, to property and to environmental damage).

Despite the fact that the chemical and petrochemical industry are exposed to all of the above losses due to the risk of thunderstorms, the reality is that lightning protection means and protocols are currently scarcely available.

Storm detection in chemical and petrochemical plants

Lightning strike accidents result in large economic losses and employee injury liabilities. Furthermore, in the chemical and petrochemical sectors specifically, direct lightning strikes can have serious environmental implications. That is why lightning protection in the chemical and petrochemical industries is both more important and more challenging than in other fields.

In North America, for example, 16 out of 20 accidents related to oil storage tanks were caused by lightning strikes3.

Moreover, in a study carried out by the Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries4, which analysed 242 industrial storage tank accidents over 40 years, 74% of them occurred in the petrochemical industry, and 30% were caused by lightning impacts.

While conventional lightning protection can prevent some damage to storage tank infrastructure, it cannot guarantee the safety of operators. Therefore, local detection of thunderstorms is key to preventing occupational hazards in the chemical and petrochemical sectors. In fact, workers outdoors are exposed to a higher risk of death or injury from lightning strikes and, in the case of the petrochemical industries, they are also in explosive or flammable environments. Lightning prevention and protection measures against thunderstorms continuously reduce lightning strike accidents.

Early warning system against lightning allows the gradual activation of the actions provided for in the emergency protocols, mainly the evacuation of exposed personnel and the suspension or postponement of dangerous processes.  To reduce or eliminate the risks of thunderstorms, it is necessary to identify the beginning and end of the thunderstorm as early and accurately as possible, in order to have sufficient time to activate the necessary procedures. Having reliable, real-time information on the risk of a thunderstorm makes it possible to limit the duration of preventive measures to the essential time, which results in less economic loss.

A good storm detection system should identify the risk of lightning strikes as early and accurately as possible to ensure the safety of exposed personnel and to prevent accidents with serious consequences for the lives of employees.

Activating preventive measures by storm detection

Local storm detection allows the stoppage of normal operational activity for the necessary risk duration time, thus optimising downtime.

In the petrochemical environment, the main actions to be taken are those related to the evacuation of workers and the deferral of activities with a potential risk associated with them.

Possible preventive actions that could be carried out, either during normal activity or in the event of a shutdown, are as follows:

  • Evacuation of personnel performing work in the outside.
  • Evacuation of personnel carrying out work inside tanks (e.g. tank cleaning), or work at heights.
  • Stoppage of certain (non-continuous) industrial processes.
  • Shutdown of certain electrical work, whether outdoors or in indoor installations connected to overhead lines, in accordance with RD 614.
  • Pre-alerting of human extinguishing teams (whose action will be carried out in the event of a lightning strike, which would allow them to arrive a few precious minutes in advance).
  • Stopping activities related to the transfer of flammable material during the distribution and logistics of petrochemical products.
  • Activation of generators to safeguard sensitive components.

Main advantages of ATSTORM® storm detection system

Aplicaciones Tecnológicas has developed an expert local early warning system for risk prevention against lightning storms capable of detecting the formation and approach of thunderstorms, providing warnings dozens of minutes in advance, allowing preventive action to be taken to minimise the risk of accidents. The ATSTORM® system is the most advanced thunderstorm detector on the market, the result of more than 15 years of accumulated experience.

ATSTORM® is capable of detecting all phases of the storm in real time from the initial phase to its dissipation. There are detectors based only on measuring the electromagnetic field produced by lightning with the limitation that they only warn of the risk when a discharge has already occurred, not being able to monitor the initial stage or the dissipation of the thunderstorm.

ATSTORM® is the optimal storm detection system for the prevention of lightning risks in the chemical and Oil&Gas industries.

  • It features dual sensing technology: Electrostatic field monitoring detects the formation of thunderstorms over the area to be protected tens of minutes in advance. It also monitors the dissipation of the lightning storm, allowing optimisation of downtimes, which prevents avoidable economic losses.

The measurement of the electrostatic field is the only solid preventive protection, on the basis of which the ATSTORM® storm detector informs about the level of risk. The electromagnetic field monitoring, on the other hand, enables the detection of active thunderstorms approaching within a radius of 40 km.

Other outstanding features that make the ATSTORM® storm detection system a state-of-the-art product are:

  • Fully electronic technology without moving mechanical parts: this avoids obstructions, wear and tear, breakdowns and maintenance.
  • Uninterrupted monitoring: the correct collection of information and permanent supervision is guaranteed thanks to the M2M global communication system and the continuous sending of data via 2G/3G technology.
  • Expert system: continuous improvement of its algorithms, increasing its adaptation to the characteristics of its location and, consequently, the performance of the alarms.
  • Flexible alert and management systems: multi-channel: APP, web portal, SCADA, SMS, emails, etc. ATSTORM® has an APP with push alerts on mobile devices for instant control of the risk of lightning strikes in installations.

Through a private web portal, users can visualise the risk level of their installations and, from there, take the necessary preventive measures.

  • Autonomous power supply system: the measuring stations have solar panels for total autonomy, as well as integrated batteries and an additional AC supply that acts as a backup system ensuring continuous operation.

If you would like to know more about the ATSTORM® expert storm detection system, please do not hesitate to contact us via the following link.

Reference

  1. Castro Delgado, R. & Arcos González, P. El riesgo de desastre químico como cuestión de salud pública. Rev. Española Salud Pública 72, 481–500 (1998).
  2. International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). IEC 62793:2020 Protection against lightning – Thunderstorm warning systems. International Standard (2020).
  3. Rasmussen, K. Natural events and accidents with hazardous materials. J. Hazard. Mater. 40, 43–54 (1995).
  4. Chang, J. I. & Lin, C. C. A study of storage tank accidents. J. Loss Prev. Process Ind. 19, 51–59 (2006).