Managing Abnormal Refinery Operations | RefinerLink

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Managing Abnormal Refinery Operations

By Ralph Laurel

Aug 21, 2012

Understanding the risk inherent in any abnormal situation makes the difference in managing a safe and reliable refinery.              


Bad things happen when units are not in their normal operating mode. Abnormal operations are a huge vulnerability at every plant. Whether you’re starting up a unit, shutting down at unit, or just dealing with atypical conditions, the exposure to a big reliability or safety incident is much greater.




These are the times when attention to detail and refinery leadership are key. Keep the following in mind whenever abnormal operations present themselves.



Don’t Get Your Blinders On

If abnormal conditions are present in one unit, often time the focus on resolving that issue can cause people to overlook other issues being created in another unit.


Make sure that the impacts of the abnormal conditions and the ensuing response are understood on the entire plant, not just the unit where the condition began. Consider a cold eyes look at the overall plant so that all interactions are well understood.



Alarm Management

A manageable alarm system is critical during startups, shutdowns, and abnormal operations. If console operators are flooded with alarms in these occasions they won’t know which ones to respond to and which ones to ignore. Proper prioritization of alarms and ensuring that only critical parameters have alarms is vital to a good response during abnormal conditions.



Safety First

In instances where the abnormal condition is creating a large financial impact a lot of new and creative solutions are discussed.


The core objective of the team is to resolve the financial impact and sometimes a significant safety risk is overlooked. Don’t forget that safety is the top priority in every plant.



Don’t fixate on solving the problem and introduce an unmanageable safety risk. Remember, the first order of management accountability is to have your employees return home safely each and every day.



Normalization of the Abnormal

We all know of abnormal conditions that have eventually become the norm. We’re challenged every day to figure out ways to live with equipment that isn’t operating up to design specifications. Be sure to realize that even if you can live with some issues, it still leaves you more exposed for bigger issues in the future.


A good way to manage this normalization is to document all abnormal operating modes. This should include a detailed plan in place on how to manage the risks associated with the new operating mode and also the permanent mitigation plan.



What if Scenarios

Know the response to typical scenarios before it occurs. Often times when major problems strike, there’s limited time to think about and plan out a response. This is especially true for process operators and console operators.  As a leader, it's important that you demand


your first line of defense be prepared to respond before the incident actually occurs.


If the refinery loses its steam system or has a power outage it’s doubtful anyone has enough time to pull up emergency procedures and work the response in a step by step manner.


These procedures need to be reviewed and

thought through on a regular basis so that the workforce is prepared to act.



What other recommendations do you have for managing the abnormal? Share your thoughts with us…


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