Occupational safety and risk assessment in steam boilers

The National Board Inspection Code (NBIC) and the Act Fabrics and Machinery Act (Malaysia) recognized the potential hazards of steam boilers and established various codes and regulations regarding hazard control and risk minimization. Each year, the authorized inspectors inspect fires and by the water for defects, scaling and corrosion. Every year, all essential valves and fittings are removed for inspection. The plate thickness is checked, the results of the boiler water analyzes are reviewed, and the authority actually enforces strict steam boiler maintenance, but various boiler accidents still occurred. One may wonder why. The reason lies in a prominent factor: human error is the leading cause of boiler accidents. One statistic indicated that 83% of boiler accidents were a direct result of human error due to lack of knowledge and attention. Although the inspection has become more stringent, the local authority does not cover inspection of the boiler’s safety checks and all routine or non-routine activities. OSHA can only provide guidelines for workplace safety, but to ensure that the implementations are outside their scope.

The root cause of hazards in an organization is organizational shortcomings. The deficiencies can be related to safety control, safe operating procedures (SOP), hazard and risk assessment and controls, and training or attention. In the case of inadequate things, employees are usually unaware of the dangers and consequences of their actions. Therefore, in order to minimize or eliminate risks that are exposed to all employees, contractors and visitors in their activities, an organization should create Occupational Health and Safety Management System (OHS). Only through OHS can hazards be recognized, and safety and health risks can be properly assessed and corrected. Management can set goals, provide appropriate controls, provide set of procedures (SOPs), organize training programs and establish safety performance evaluation.

Boilers have many potential hazards that need to be controlled by safety devices and safe working methods. Before identifying the dangers, one must understand the significance of the dangers. In this context, danger is defined as “a source or situation with the potential for injury in the form of personal injury or ill health, material damage or a combination thereof”. To begin identifying hazards, management needs to know what activities are involved. Activities can be divided into two categories that are routine and non-routine. Routine activities include daily operations, chemical preparation and fuel storage and handling, while non-routine activities include boiler overhaul, enclosed space and emergency response. The first phase of hazard identification is a selection of jobs to be analyzed.

Management must first select the most important activities, such as daily operations and chemical preparation. In the second phase, the OHS management must divide the activities into logical steps. The logical steps must be unique to the activities and trivia activities such as lighting the candles must be avoided. Examples are taking data from different meters during operation or pouring chain chemicals into a jar. In the third phase, management must identify hazards and determine the corresponding risks at each stage. In the production of boiler chemicals, the boiler operators are exposed to corrosive liquid spills and release of acid gas. Risk is the consequence, and in this case the risks are eye damage and pain, burn or cancer when handling hydrazine. A high noise level exceeding 85 dBA is an example of danger in daily operation and the risk is obvious, which is deafness. In the fourth phase, management must develop risk assessment or mitigation measures.

At high noise levels, risk assessment or mitigation requires noise control such as acoustic insulation (lining) or acoustic partitions, enclosure to noise emitting source, increased pipe size to reduce vapor turbulence or install noise diffuser. The best method is to control noise at source, such as installing muffler, changing equipment, for example switching normal pressure reduction valve (PRV) to low noise PRV. Other high noise level risk controls would be wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) or reducing exposure time. The most common danger of boiler operation is low water, and the risk may be permanent damage to the boiler or explosion. Modern boilers are usually equipped with automatic level controllers, low water burner lock, low water alarm and regular checking of glass panes from the boiler operators. All of these are risk checks on safety devices. Enclosed space work is a non-routine activity, the risk associated with physical injury or fatalities due to asphyxia or toxic gas, and current risk control follows the enclosed space intrusion guidelines, which should not be covered here.

When you pour the chemical into a jar, the danger is chemically sprayed on the eyes and the risk is eye injury and personal injury. From this, the risk control would wear goggles. Another example of daily operations is blowing down. Blasting can cause wastage of hot water, which is the danger, and can scald the boiler operators, which is the risk. The example of risk control is to blow into the blow-out chamber instead of directly into the atmosphere, which reduces potential waste of hot water to the surrounding area.

In the final phase, after the job security analysis is completed for each activity, the activities, hazards and risks and the corresponding risk controls must be documented for reference. Based on this, safe operating procedures can be established to ensure that workplace risks can be eliminated or minimized. Training must be performed by the competent person responsible for all boiler operators to explain in detail the hazards, risks, controls, procedures and responsibilities as well as accountability.

For any organization that does not have a structured OHS management system, I would recommend OHSAS 18001 or MS 1722 certification. OHSAS 18001 or MS 1722 provides a set of procedures and tools to promote continuous improvement through hazard identification, risk assessment and control of risk in a very systematic way. Aside from these benefits, I noticed with the implementation of OHSAS 18001 standards, the management and staff of my organization had improved significantly in their understanding of health and safety laws as well as the ability to demonstrate compliance.