Safety is a paramount concern when both constructing and operating an industrial or other process control facility.  It is likely that a plant site, when in operation, carries greater risks for both outside (field) and inside (facility) personnel within the plant area than a similar commercial environment may hold at a non-industrial plant site. Before the plant starts operating, risks would by nature be construction risks. This paper looks at both the front end construction and back-end operating conditions, and how to shift from one type of safety to the other. We also don’t want to minimize or downplay the risks of working in either a construction environment versus an operating plant by comparing overpressure and vapor release issues to the physical risks of a construction process; they clearly are separate issues.  But they are related since the completion of the first risk set creates the opportunity for the second risk set to begin.

The two environments have different safety issues which must both be planned for, and in some cases, implementing construction activities while plant operations are also ongoing carries the greatest safety concerns for both plant and construction personnel working in the plant and exposed to both.   Two to three years administering construction safety while also planning for twenty five to thirty years of operational safety is the crux of the issue we must span, along with the primary business goals of the Client for whom  we do the design. Let’s face it: all other things being equal, the constructor’s business goal for their tenure on the site is not quite the same as the Owner’s goals for operating the plant and facilities designed.

This discussion is focused on what we do as architects specializing in the design of manned facilities within these industrial sites.  Our goal is to help create and contribute to better safety in consideration of those two aspects by design facilities that can be constructed and then operated 24-7 and/or 9-5 facilities within these environments.

One day, the construction project is over; operational Safety issues take over now.

Safety has likely been achieved through the vigilance of the construction contractor’s good planning practices and oversight; everyone’s OSHA recordable safety record and EMR stands in good stead.  So how does the concept of safety endure and translate for the Owner?  The Owner has to shift from construction mode to operational mode- a whole new safety paradigm kicks off.

Smith LaRock Architecture has specialized in the design of plant technical facilities since 2002 for our Fortune 50 Energy Company Owners/Clients.  We typically work directly for the Owner, which provides us the access we need to their Operations, Maintenance, or other facility-specific personnel to collect good operational information so we may develop a comprehensive Design Program and ultimately facility designs that reflect their functional needs, operational culture, safety requirements, and practical procedures.

On occasion, we have been enlisted under the Owner’s EPC Contractors to deliver the building designs needed; EPCs look at facility designs differently than the end-users. As designers we must communicate the importance of why some facilities like Control Centers must integrate different interior architecture elements than an Office or a Maintenance Shop facility.  As builders, they must get the facilities constructed within budgets that may have been developed without the integration of Human Factors and Architecture that are needed in Control Centers, for example.   While Control Centers may appear to be commercial buildings, the 24-7 aspect creates durability requirements that normal commercial facilities do not consider:  24-7 structures see 30 years of wear and tear with 10 years of use. These buildings generally cannot be shut down, much less disturbed for repairs, and we don’t like designing maintenance problems for our clients so the buildings do have more robust requirements.

Integrating technology with people and environments in a Control Building setting also creates special human factors and basic operational needs that may not be considered in early pro-forma construction estimates: lighting, acoustics, finishes, ventilation, and ergonomics of the furnishings and fixtures, as well as functional support spaces requiring systems like computer flooring, n+1/n+2 redundant electrical (UPS, battery and gensets), and mechanical HVAC systems.  Blast resistant / shelter-in-place design mandated by RP-752/3 in some cases, breathing air systems.  These are not typical buildings. The control center is where the money is made.  The design of the control center can impact the plant’s bottom line both negatively and positively. Integrating human factors with an architectural design that aids in improving human performance in these shiftwork spaces will improve both the operations personnel and the overall efforts to optimize the control room/building to support that goal.

When building a greenfield plant, or on a site in low overpressure risk areas or outside a plant where there may not be any blast or vapor release potential, stick-built buildings afford the users better solutions for the next 30 years.  This is especially true in the case of Control Centers where higher ceilings, blast wall deflections, and improved functionality can be designed into a facility versus modular structures that do not easily allow for proper control room ceiling heights or lighting to be used.  The limited space also creates issues like have equipment mounted to walls that could deflect significantly under blast loading, foundations and utilities must still be constructed.  In practice, modular blast shelters do not fit together as one would think a ‘modular’ should. Modular shelters are a good solution for certain aspects of plant design when that plant is operating, but when dealing with today’s operator, we must look beyond what we see in today’s Control Room.  Especially when considering that these facilities aren’t being built with today’s Operators in mind, but rather the operators who will be on-site in ten years.

For reference, we look at future Operators for these facilities in their current environment: high schools and colleges. They have grown up with newer technologies, and expect that they will be working in these new control centers, and that they cannot be what’s been used in the past. These folks don’t seem to have the same appreciation for the job or willingness to work in an environment that older generations did.  When considering the costs to be in continual recruitment / training mode at a cost per trainee of $25-$50K, Owners want to get out of the training business and retain the best Operators. It has become commonplace to have proficient operators lured away- with that training- to work in the control centers of other companies where they have recognized the need to provide better environments for these resources.

The point is, whether working directly for an Owner or an EPC Contractor, SLA brings a specialized level of experience, knowledge, and unique qualifications to the team of professionals working on a facility design project. Understanding that future safety begins on paper in the early phases of a design is a very important consideration that helps an Owner not only plan for operational safety, but realize that safety during construction as well as apply it after the dust has settled in operations mode.

We believe that safer plants result from the application of industry best practices to the design, improvements in the integration, application and collaboration of design with technology, and knowledgeable design planning; by designing Control Centers that embody our processes to attain these goals, we can help make everyone in the plant safer.

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