by Cal Chapman
As I wrote in the previous issue, the Eagle Ford Shale development is causing a huge construction boom in infrastructure, pipelines, and plants. Our business is in the corrosion protection and environmental compliance, assessment and cleanup industries. It’s difficult to admit, but most of the problems we are asked to solve can be called “self-inflicted wounds!”
What do I mean by that? In the case of corrosion issues, we find most of the problems to be man-caused. They’re not just “luck of the draw” or Mother Nature inflicting “acts of God.” The corrosion hole in a pipe, for instance, was very often started by some person not doing his or her job right. An environmental contamination problem may begin as somebody cross-threads a fitting, or attaches two different metals to each other. A product leak results, and then the release gets discovered, and then a lot of money is spent to clean it up, investigate how widespread the damage is, and so on. Hopefully, nobody gets hurt in the whole process, or that multiplies the negative consequences.
What can be done about all this? We preach INSPECTION! This should be done during construction, when repairs are being done, and even when maintenance and other fairly mundane procedures are being performed.
There are so many work areas that need attention. As just one discussion point, if a new plant or facility is being designed and built, the designers had better do their work well. The materials and equipment have to be ordered and brought to the site. Good craftsmen, contractors, and construction managers had better be “on the job.” But on top of all that, QUALIFIED AND EXPERIENCED INSPECTORS need to be ON THE JOB! Here are a few qualifications for inspectors, in my opinion:
- An inspector has to be properly trained in his or her field of expertise, including some certification by a well-known, independent institution. Most trades have this sort of independent training and standards-writing body, and the trades-people know which organization is strong for a particular trade;
- That inspector should have work experience in the field of expertise, too, IN ADDITION TO the book and classroom training. There are people who excel at classroom stuff. Do they have the work time in the field, which has taught them there are a whole bunch of problems which don’t fit the classroom examples? That there are a lot of answers that fall in the huge gray area between “it’s clearly this way” and “it’s clearly that way?”
- The inspector has to be INDEPENDENT, and have the AUTHORITY to shut down a crew doing bad stuff, or correct a work practice that’s not right. We so frequently see an inspector who is brought in by the contractor, under that bid package, because the “specs” say it should be that way. What is the motivation for this inspector to “call a foul” on the contractor’s people, or a subcontractor? He works WITH them, FOR them! Then again, the inspector may belong to the operating company, who’s paying for the whole project. He or she is the “company man.” And yet, he or she is still often motivated to “get pipe in the ground,” and not necessarily make sure all the pipe coating is inspected for damage. When everyone is in a hurry to get the project done, the inspector takes a lot of heat for any holdups, in the face of that driving motivation. The inspector needs a strong sense of right and wrong, and the strength of personality to say “STOP” when everyone wants it to keep going! (In that case, the company really ought to hire a completely independent inspector, with clear authority to stop the job based on clear specifications, procedures and industry-standard test methods being used.)
So what is the cost of NOT doing good inspection? Every time there is an accident related to construction, investigations dig into the “root cause.” Those construction accidents are often pretty high-visibility and get a lot of attention. Contrast that with the leak from a tank or a pipeline a few years after it was built. You no longer have a lot of people working on the site, day to day. The story may not make the news. But if it is a leak, and the system gets shut down, and a product spill has to get assessed and cleaned up, we are probably looking at tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs. If somebody does get hurt because of it, cost just went up a whole lot more. That is when the cost of inspection looks like a great investment, in comparison to what just happened. But it’s a few years too late.
Not enough people take this line of thinking and turn it the other way. If you do perform good inspection, you are most likely going to operate that asset for a lot less money, and at a lot lower risk, over its lifetime. What is that worth in dollars? I would love to see studies done that show good-quality inspection DOES pay back as a good investment. We don’t measure what never happens...(think about that.)
Over the years, my selling technique has basically been to tell people, “use our leak detection process” or “use our corrosion protection approaches” and we will save you money by preventing leaks, or minimizing the sizes of problems if they occur; we will help you sleep better at night because of that. But I could not measure them actual dollar savings in accidents avoided, releases that never happened, and product that stayed inside the tank or pipeline. It’s an intuitive argument that makes sense, if I can just get somebody to think about it. Now, how much budget they may be willing to steer to this approach is another question . . . and that’s a continual balancing act: how much money to spend on “preventive maintenance” and on up-front inspection, versus saving all that money and betting that nothing bad will happen.
You know, there is one other problem area with inspection. Finding good inspectors is not all that easy. If they are good, they are usually very busy. And we don’t find a lot of young people entering the work force who say, “I want to become an inspector, a quality assurance specialist.” And yet, in every field, for the sake of health and safety, for the security of the structure or facility owner and operator, and even for the contractors and their personnel to perform better-quality work job by job, we NEED GOOD INSPECTORS.
Cal Chapman is co-founder of Chapman Engineering, which began business in fall 1988. He is a licensed “Cathodic Protection Specialist” through the National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE, now called NACE International), and is a licensed professional engineer in Texas and New Mexico. Chapman Engineering provides cathodic protection, AC mitigation, coatings and corrosion protection specifications, and other engineering services. The company performs environmental compliance, assessment and remedy services in oilfield, petroleum wholesale, and industrial settings. In-house staff includes engineers, geologists, corrosion technicians and environmental scientists. Please contact Chapman Engineering at 800-375-7747.