A petroleum refinery experienced a catastrophic rupture at one bank of three heat exchangers in a catalytic reformer/naphtha hydrotreater unit because of high temperature hydrogen attack (HTHA). Hydrogen and naphtha at more than 500F were released from the ruptured heat exchanger and ignited, causing an explosion and an intense fire burned for more than three hours.

The rupture fatally injured seven employees working in the immediate vicinity of heat exchanger at the time of the incident. The workers were in the final stages of a start-up activity to put a parallel bank of three heat exchangers back in service following cleaning. Such start-up activities had resulted in frequent leaks and occasional fires in the past and should have been considered as hazardous and nonroutine. view more

An employee at a soap manufacturing plant died in a flash fire outside the facility's hydrogenation building. Responding personnel encountered a fire at the base of the plant's hydrogen storage towers, and they found the victim, who was burned over 90 percent of his body, some 50 feet away.

Officials determined that a pipe connection failed and that hydrogen, pressurized at 1,800 psi, ignited when it was released into the atmosphere, killing the plant operator.

According to reports, the pipe connection failure stemmed from pressures higher than design tolerance, which in turn were the result of over tightening that occurred during routine maintenance replacement. The new bolts were stronger than those they replaced, and the threads of the nuts had been partially view more

Incident Synopsis
During a standard testing procedure, a 3,000 psig relief valve actuated at normal line pressure, releasing gaseous H2. The gaseous H2 combined with air, resulting in an explosion which damaged the test facility.

Cause
The relief valve was improperly set to open at line pressure, and the inspection was inadequate in that it didn't identify this error. Contributing cause was poor design of the venting system, which was installed in a horizontal position, causing inadequate venting and buildup of static electricity.