Plants & Facilities

When Disaster Strikes


When Disaster Strikes
© Limbitech

From the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic to frequent
severe weather, the past few years have presented no
shortage of obstacles for the lubricants industry to navigate. Fortunately, these disruptive events have been accompanied by an ever-increasing emphasis on emergency planning at base oil and lubricant blending plants. 

What kinds of emergencies must be considered when crafting emergency plans? “We predominately look at emergencies around loss of containment or potential fire events” at lubricant blending plants, said George Johnstone, manager – process and plant engineering with Fuchs Petrolub SE. “Of course, there are others, including planning for extreme weather events.”

Similarly, base oil plants must have their own emergency plans. However, emergency plans at base oil units must work in tandem with refinery-wide plans. “As base oil units are integrated into crude oil refineries, a refinery-wide emergency will affect base oil units,” said Amy Claxton, CEO of My Energy Consulting. 

She categorized physical emergencies at base oil facilities into three categories:

  • Equipment failure within a base oil unit that may cause that unit to shut down for several hours or days. Examples of equipment failure include the loss of a hydrogen compressor on a base oil hydrocracker or hydrodewaxer and the loss of bottoms pumps on a lube vacuum tower.
  • Equipment failure involving a refinery-wide system that affects base oil unit operations. Examples of this sort of incident include refinery-wide hydrogen plant outages, problems with refinery boilers that feed the steam grid, and tankage and dock problems that interrupt base oil shipments.
  • Weather-related events, like hurricanes, tornadoes and frigid temperatures, that render the entire refinery inoperable.

Prevention and Planning

Johnstone identified risk analysis as the first step of emergency planning. “Emergencies by definition mean that there has been a loss of control, leading to a serious, dangerous event,” he said. “When we look at emergencies and the development of emergency response plans, we need to understand the risks and the potential consequences. We place a lot of focus on risk analysis and prevention. Prevention is better than the cure.”

Once risk has been identified, companies can then focus on developing ways to prevent emergency situations from occurring. “Normally you try to multilayer your defenses,” Johnstone said. “What I mean by multilayering is that you start by considering all the instructions that people do their daily work by and include all the safety considerations there. Then you have the training layer, where you develop expertise and knowledge about the systems or the equipment you’re working on. That includes training on anything to do with emergency situations.” 

Another defensive layer is a work permitting system. “When work is undertaken on our sites, there is a whole range of permits that ensure that certain checks and balances are in place before work is allowed to be carried out,” Johnstone said. “You’ve then got safety reporting and auditing based on internal and external experts looking at all your systems.”

After risk has been assessed and preventive controls have been put in place, local safety regulations are integrated into emergency plans as well. “There are well-defined standards that set the baseline for evacuation methods, emergency lighting and pathways, and access and exit points being clear,” Johnstone said. Those regulations often include regular consultation and drills with local emergency personnel. The drills occur annually, if not more often.

Automation monitoring systems provide additional plant protection. “There are also what are called process safety systems,” Johnstone said. “They are a separate control system that takes the plant offline if it deems the plant is running outside its agreed upon limits. These automation process safety systems are included in Fuchs’ plant projects, adding a redundant level of protection for high-risk areas.” Manual fail-safe systems, like shutdown and over-pressure valves, are also standard at lubricant plants. 

Claxton confirmed that similar systems are used at base oil plants. “Refineries have written instructions as well as historical know-how within employee ranks to activate emergency procedures in the event of a minor or major emergency,” Claxton said. “Today’s refineries are fully computerized with inputs for temperatures, pressures and flows into a central operations computer control area manned 24/7/365 with trained personnel.” These computerized systems alert personnel to potential emergencies early, allowing them to get a jump on managing the issue. 

“What might often be seen in the broad scope of refining as a ‘minor’ emergency—say, a pump fire in an enclosed concrete pit—can quickly escalate into a major event if the fire isn’t immediately contained,” Claxton explained. “Process operators understand this and are trained to act quickly, call out emergency personnel as needed and alert engineering and operations management to unfolding events.” 

As for planning for weather events, refineries are engineered to sustain temperatures and wind speeds typical of the region in which they are located. “Unusual weather events, such as hurricanes and severely cold weather, have written protocols as well as long-standing refinery know-how with the ranks of personnel in operations, technical and mechanical divisions,” Claxton said. “Meetings between key personnel within and outside the refinery will commence as soon as there is a possible weather event. Plans will be shaped continuously based on hourly national and local forecast data, with action steps evolving as needed.”

For instance, during a hurricane, emergency plans might include shutting down units in an orderly fashion. This allows most personnel to be sent home, while a skeleton crew remains at the refinery during the storm, Claxton said. “Empty tanks may be filled with water to keep them from dislodging and floating during high water surges,” she added.

Freezing weather beyond what is normal for a region also requires planning, Claxton said. It is vital to ensure that steam tracing is working correctly and that all piping is adequately insulated. During a cold snap, refinery personnel will anticipate and monitor historical trouble spots and make unit adjustments as needed. These adjustments may include slowing or shutting down units to avoid uncontrolled shutdowns if power is lost. 

Chain of Command

Johnstone said that each Fuchs site has its own emergency response team. “Those teams will be part of putting those emergency plans together and walking out the plans to see that they make sense.” During an emergency event, the chain of command begins with the emergency response team and then extends to include plant management, emergency services and national management, he said. 

At base oil plants, Claxton explained, “process operators in the refinery, along with their mechanical crafts personnel and inspection partners, are the heroes who make base oils. Their knowledge, technical skill and judgment in assessing an unfolding emergency are critical to ensure the safety of all personnel and equipment.” 

However, every emergency requires a bespoke action plan, and key personnel are called upon depending on the situation. “This starts with operations personnel who are on the front line of any emergency, who will communicate to engineers, inspectors and mechanical crafts personnel to assess damage, and provide and execute a mechanical repair plan,” Claxton said. In major events, refineries may need to call upon personnel outside of the organization. 

Some emergency events can cause production outages. In such cases, Claxton said, “coordination and planning groups at the refinery as well as in a centralized headquarters setting will be involved in emergency events to keep the sales department up to date in the event base oil customers might be affected. Alternate base oil supplies may be arranged if necessary.” 

For events that may affect the community surrounding the plant or refinery, designated spokespersons and senior management will also be involved. 

The Road to Recovery

After employee and community safety have been ensured, recovery from an emergency situation is top of mind. “The recovery will be greatly dependent on the severity of the event or the damage,” Johnstone said.

A vital step in returning to normal operation is looking into the cause of the emergency. “We place great emphasis on conducting a full investigation into the event and implementing all recommendations before the plant is restarted,” Johnstone said. “As important as restarting is, you’ve really got to take a minute and have a really thorough look at what went on and what caused the emergency. Are there any other knock-on effects? What do we need to do to bring the situation back under control?”

Claxton agreed: “Problems with restarts are not uncommon and can hamper the recovery timeline post-emergency. It is critical to devise a restart plan unique to every emergency, and attention to detail is critical, so that secondary failures are avoided.” 

Such attention to detail takes time. If an entire refinery has been shut down, it may take days to weeks to restart, depending on the damage incurred. “There are standing procedures and protocols for restart of every unit and every system within a refinery, but critical assessments are required to make sure,” Claxton said. “Base oil units may be prioritized for restart due to the value of their products relative to fuels-producing units, although base oil units often share services and rely on fuels units to produce feedstocks. Startup decisions will be made based on mechanical damage assessments as well as internal feedstock levels.” 

There are also financial implications after an emergency. These include resources required to repair or replace damaged equipment and revenue impacts from lost production and sales. “The financial consequences of a refinery emergency can be staggering, but they pale in comparison to the immediate focus on personnel and environmental safety,” Claxton said. “Financial issues are assessed and managed only after the refinery is secured.”

When an emergency leads to a break in the supply chain, it is important for companies to have a contingency plan. According to Johnstone, large multinational companies like Fuchs can mitigate these breaks by relying on production from other plants until recovery is complete. “When we’re looking at recovering, each plant is part of the overall global supply chain,” he said. “In 2014, Fuchs introduced the Three-C Initiative, which developed multiple duplicate plants across the globe, so we were able to deliver multiple customer supply points. We can turn capacity on at other plants should we have an event at another. In the customer supply chain, you need security and contingency planning.”   

Sydney Moore is managing editor of Lubes’n’Greases magazine. Contact her at