Ceramic Industry

KILN CONNECTION: Safety First

September 1, 2010

As a Gulf Coast resident, the oil deluge-no, it was not a spill-in the Gulf of Mexico still seems almost surreal. Beautiful beaches, interesting wildlife, warm waters and great fishing abound in the Gulf. Sadly, the damage caused by this gargantuan flood of crude oil will affect the area for decades.

I sat mesmerized by the CNN video feeds of this catastrophe, watching BP’s infantile efforts to stem the flow of oil. Their plans du jour for solutions were like watching the Keystone Kops, and we watched failure after failure occur. Lots of players in this disaster contributed to the horrific situation, but the fact is that the operating managers on the drilling platform share a lot of the blame. They appear to have been willing to take large chances to avoid telling the bosses that they need to hold up production for safety and security.

Drilling for oil is a risky business, so safety should never be ignored. In this case it was, and, in addition to an environmental mess that will rage on for years, lives were lost as a result.

Kiln Safety

Now, think of the safety systems associated with your kilns. The basics include purge systems that eliminate any accumulated gases in the kiln prior to ignition; pressure monitors that sense gas, air and exhaust pressures; and redundant solenoid valves to block the flow of fuel, combined with flame sensing. In my career, I have seen all of these systems defeated at one time or another by untrained personnel or operators in a hurry. I have rarely seen a conscientious check of the tightness of critical main line blocking valves-the blowout preventer of kilns. And I have seen defective switches defeated rather than replaced.

Just like oil drilling, kiln operations are inherently dangerous. According to North American Manufacturing, just 13 ft3 of natural gas has the explosive power of a stick of dynamite. Industrial periodic kilns range in size from 600-6000 ft3. Do the math and you will see that the explosive forces can be phenomenal. I have investigated accidents several times, and have seen huge doors destroyed, kiln roofs blown off, and, sadly, people hurt. We can point fingers at BP, but I’ve also seen many companies do exactly the same thing with their kiln safety.

Production managers are always under pressure to produce, and sometimes the pressure can be extreme. I suggest that during this period of reduced output, you reconsider how (if?) you test your combustion systems, and then consider the severe and dangerous possibilities for an unplanned explosion.

After expending billions of dollars so far on the Gulf mess, I would imagine that BP will consider the costs of taking shortcuts in the future. Be smarter than that. Prevention through testing accuracy and prompt repair is worth the time that it takes. Accidents come at you fast and you can’t undo them. Prevent them and you can avoid untold costs and the potential loss of life.