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Safety Moment #15: Common Process Safety

Hazards (Part 3)
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Common Process Safety Hazards

One of the philosophies behind Process Safety Management (PSM) is that each
chemical process is unique. Therefore it is not possible to have a prescriptive
standard that tells operating companies what to do. Instead, companies have to
identify the unique hazards associated with their facility, and then implement
corrective actions based on a risk-ranking methodology. For this reason, facilities
covered by PSM standards have to conduct a series of Process Hazards Analyses
(PHAs), often using the Hazard and Operability (HAZOP) methodology.

Yet many hazards, particularly to do with utilities, piping, valves and hoses, are
really not all that different from one facility to another. Therefore, in order to save
time during the PHA and also to improve the quality of the analysis, it is useful to
list and evaluate some of these common hazards before the PHA meetings start.

This Safety Moment is the third in a series that describes some of these common
hazards. Discussed here are the HAZOP guide phrases ‘High Flow’, ‘Low / No Flow’,
‘Reverse Flow’ and ‘Misdirected Flow’. 

The first two Safety Moments in this series to do with Common Process Safety
Hazards are:

Safety Moment #10: Hazards of Utilities; and

Safety Moment #13: Hazards of Utilities and Emergency Response Equipment

High Flow
Generally, the phenomenon of ‘High Flow’ — in and of itself — is not inherently
hazardous. Indeed high flow rates are often desired because they imply that the
facility is maximizing production and revenues. Although high flow can occasionally
create hazards, such as erosion of pipe walls or of a valve seat, its main effect in
terms of process safety is to create secondary deviations such as ‘High Level’ in a
tank. ‘High Flow’ can also lead to a ‘No Flow’ situation; for example, if a pump
overspeeds, the sudden surge in motor amperage may result in the motor burning
out leading to the flow stopping.

Low / No Flow
As with ‘High Flow’, the phenomenon of ‘Low Flow’ is not usually, in and of itself,
hazardous. However, ‘Low Flow’ can create secondary effects. For example a low
flow of cooling water in a heat exchanger can lead to ‘High Temperature’ of the
process stream. ‘No Flow’ is usually more serious than ‘Low Flow’ because its
occurrence implies a sudden cessation of a processing activity. Probably the biggest
hazard associated with ‘No Flow’ is the possibility of it being followed by ‘Reverse
Flow’ because the upstream and downstream pressures have equalized, or even

Both ‘Low Flow’ and ‘No Flow’ are usually caused by the inadvertent closing of a
valve or the failure of rotating equipment such as pumps and compressors. Because
such events occur quite frequently, most facilities have plenty of instrumentation
and safeguards to respond to this scenario.

Reverse Flow
‘Reverse Flow’ can create high-risk hazards because it can lead to the mixing of
incompatible chemicals or to the introduction of corrosive chemicals into equipment
not designed for them. The causes of ‘Reverse Flow’ are usually a pressure reversal
in which a high pressure section of the process loses pressure; process fluids then
flow into that section back from low pressure sections of the process. (The
occurrence of reverse flow almost invariably implies that a check valve and/or
safety instrumented system has failed to prevent the event.)

The sketch shows a process consisting of three sections: A, B and C. The chemicals
in Sections A and B are non-corrosive, so these two sections can be safely made of
carbon steel. When the two chemicals are mixed in Section C they react to form a
corrosive product, hence this section has to be made of stainless steel. If a reverse
flow should occur from Section C to either A or B, then those sections would
corrode, leading to loss of containment.

Another feature of ‘Reverse Flow’ to watch for is that it may take some time for the
operators to identify its occurrence, particularly if the flow measurement
instrumentation is not set up to recognize the phenomenon. Moreover, experienced
operators frequently have trouble visualizing ‘Reverse Flow’. They recognize the
possibility of high and low flow because they have probably witnessed these
phenomena, but reverse flow may be totally outside their experience. Hence, when
the topic of Reverse Flow is being discussed during a HAZOP, the team leader
should allow plenty of time for the team members to think through possible causes
and consequences.

Misdirected Flow
‘Misdirected Flow’ occurs when a process stream is sent to the wrong destination.
Like ‘Reverse Flow’ this deviation can create high risk scenarios because
incompatible materials may be mixed with one another, or corrosive chemicals may
be sent to areas without the correct materials of construction. Also like ‘Reverse
Flow’ this scenario may be difficult to detect or diagnose.

Reference Material

The material provided here is extracted from Chapter 19 of the 2nd

edition of Plant Design and Operations. Subsequent safety moments will discuss
other common process safety hazards.