Failure Following an Extended Interval between Turnarounds: Management Negligence or Pre-existing Defect?

Criminal Trial, Russia, Eastern Europe, & Central Asia

It was claimed that a postponed turnaround at a refinery was the cause of a catastrophic failure that resulted in a fire, injuries, and major equipment damage. Among other potential factors, Baker & O'Brien assessed the practices and programs that led to the decision to postpone the turnaround.

Petroleum refineries are complex manufacturing facilities that require periodic shutdowns, or - in industry parlance - turnarounds, to perform essential internal equipment inspections and repairs and/or replacements that cannot be performed while the facilities are in operation. They are often - but not always - coincident with essential operations to replace or regenerate catalysts for a new operating cycle. The "annualized downtime days for a turnaround" is a widely-used industry measure.

Historically, perhaps thirty or more years ago, it was fairly common for intervals between turnarounds to be fixed by management directives; for example, a major turnaround every four years and a minor turnaround every two years. In some countries, intervals between turnarounds were legislated. As continuous processes cannot generate profits while undergoing a turnaround, there have been industry efforts to minimize the annualized downtime days for turnarounds. Additionally, the actual shutting down - and subsequent starting-up - of a refinery process unit can also present safety risks. Therefore, extending intervals between turnarounds can have additional benefits.

While pressure vessels still have to be inspected periodically, there is no world-wide industry standard that requires fixed intervals between turnarounds for refinery process units. To plan and schedule turnarounds, petroleum refiners have developed risk-based inspection and process safety management programs. These programs use predictive and preventive techniques to extend intervals between turnarounds while simultaneously trying to minimize the actual time that the process unit is shut down. If implemented successfully, these programs can result in significant commercial benefits due to increased on-stream time. There is now wide acceptance in the refining industry of these "risk-based" maintenance practices.

A refiner hired a new management team to introduce and develop industry best practices for refinery maintenance, inspection, and turnaround execution. Following the implementation of these programs, a decision was made to postpone a scheduled turnaround. Soon after the originally-scheduled turnaround date, the refinery suffered a catastrophic failure that resulted in a fire, injuries, and major equipment damage. Baker & O'Brien was engaged to investigate the event and the possible causes.

We were engaged to assess whether: 1) the practices and programs developed and initiated by the new management team met industry best practices and applicable government regulations; 2) the decision to postpone the turnaround was justified from the standpoint of the refinery's maintenance risk assessment program; and 3) the extended interval between turnarounds was a factor in the cause of the fire. Our conclusions were presented in an expert report.

Gary N. Devenish

Vice President

Petroleum Refining
Standard of Care / Accident / Incident Investigation / Litigation / Expert Witness Testimony / Operations and Maintenance
Russia, Eastern Europe, & Central Asia