In Case You've Wondered

My blog is where my wandering thoughts are interspersed with stuff I made up. So, if while reading you find yourself confused about the context, don't feel alone. I get confused, too.

If you're here for the stories, I started another blog:

One other thing: sometimes I write words you refuse to use in front of children, or polite company, unless you have a flat tire, or hit your thumb with a hammer.

I don't use them to offend; I use them to embellish.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A day in a refinery

I know there are many that have worked in a petrochemical facility, but for those that haven't it's not what you think.

When you first reach the gate, you'll find a series of concrete barriers. The barriers are placed to prevent quick access to the facility. Otherwise, if you wanted to pull around traffic, crash the gate and speed inside for some terrorist mission, you're out of luck. You'll crash and probably spend the rest of your life in prison, if you're not swarmed by a bunch of really pissed off workers.

The guards are trained to check you out. They ask for your proper documentation, which usually includes a Transportation Worker Identification Card (TWIC), another government issued photo I.D. and a card that shows you've been safety trained for the facility. They'll probably look under your hood, through your toolboxes, under the hood and use a mirror on wheels to check the undercarriage. If you have a beard, or the wrong type of safety clothing, you might be turned away. They have rules about such things, and there are no gray areas.

I wrote about the cards for access to the facility. What are these cards?

The TWIC card is a government issued photo identification. It requires fingerprints of all your fingers, proof of identification and a background check. The cost is about $140, which doesn't include the few hours involved with the processes to finally receive the card. It's good for a few years, then you go back for a renewal.

The safety card requires more time. Usually, you have a 4 hour basic safety course, but that's only the start. After that you have a site specific course and any other specialty course, such as "Confined Space" or "Hazmat". After it's all done, you can spend days in mind numbing safety classes and expect to return in one year for refresher courses. These courses don't include special equipment certifications that can take weeks to acquire. You have these cards, or you don't work. That's the rules.

After you're inside, it's time to prepare for work. You may have driven to the site, or have parked in a special area from which you walked, or rode a bus to site. Now it's time to go through the processes that allow you to work.

First is a toolbox safety meeting. You either prepare, or review a "Job Safety Analysis" and eventually sign the document for processing. After the fifteen minutes are up, it's time to go prepare tools and equipment, but you can't start until you have the proper permits.

The minimum is a work permit. It's issued by an operator of the unit, or area. They have the knowledge and know when it's safe to work. Included in this permit may be a hot work permit, confined space entry permit, a vehicle permit or any other permit required by the facility. No permit; no work.

The work area may need to be "sniffed" for Hydrogen Sulfide, or other dangerous gas. Processes involve tons of chemicals, including petroleum products and exotic things such as Phosphene, Phenol, Acrylic Acid, Hydrochloric Acid, get the picture. One missed step might be instant death to workers. These deaths aren't pretty because, usually, at least on person makes the mistake of trying to save someone. Without the proper equipment, and training, they're just as dead.

Now it's time to go to work. PPE (personal protection equipment) is donned. The minimum is hard hat, safety glasses, steel toe boots and gloves. Added to this may be Nomex coveralls (usually required where a flash fire is possible) hearing protection, breathing protection (another special card), and a face shield. It depends and it's all uncomfortable.

Work can be anything. It may be heavy construction or any of the thousands of service jobs. All have their special tools and methods, but all are governed by the rules of the facility. There are no waivers. Those that fail to follow the rules are escorted from the facility and, usually, banned forever.

When you really stop and look, you can't hide your fascination. Pipelines are measured in hundreds of miles. Vessels are stacked, racked, tower or contained behind explosion proof barriers. From a distance, it looks like a solid structure. When you're close, your realize it's like a steel collage, with access to almost anywhere. Paths, catwalks, stairs, landings and rooms are everywhere. All sits on massive concrete structures and concrete paving is placed for containment and access.

The noise is a steady rumble accented by the scream of gasses traveling through pipes, the whine of electric motors and the roar of liquids as they're dumped from vessels and sent away for storage. Open flames are visible from boilers and the steam is always present from the constant relieving of excess water by steam traps.

The lighting of a flare will always get your attention. It's automatic and they don't waste anything. So something isn't quite right and sending it to flare means they have no other options. At that time, you'll start remembering evacuation routes and procedures.

There is no way to really describe a petrochemical facility. It would be like trying to explain the taste of chocolate. Until you experience a day in one of these places, I can only tell you it's the hottest, coldest, loudest, dirtiest, most frightening and most dangerous place you'll ever visit. Statistically, they're safe, but that's only because the beast is constantly watched and monitored.  None are without incidents, but these incidents are few, and far between. Usually, they happen because somebody took a shortcut, or ignored a warning. The result can be death, or a lifetime of suffering.


  1. A friends dad lost his eyes at a refinery when an explosion took place where he was working.

  2. I lived once near a Mobil processing plant. I would drive by during the day and it looked positively petrifying. By night it was awe inspiring. A marvel of modern alchemical magic wherein Texas Tea becomes more lucrative than gold; no wonder why it is so carefully guarded and regulated by modern dragons.

  3. Whoa. I think I'll stick to being an assassin.