How Remote Monitoring Tech Can Prevent Catastrophic Incidents - Maven Academy
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How Remote Monitoring Tech Can Prevent Catastrophic Incidents

Published by Director, Maven Academy - 2 years ago

A catastrophic incident is one that results in either massive casualties or property damage or both while its effects extend beyond the immediate geographical boundaries where the incident occurred. The consequences of such events could last over an extended period; sometimes even a whole generation, depending upon the nature and severity of the incident. An incident of this magnitude could be a natural occurrence or likely be a manmade disaster. History has presented us with many examples of catastrophic incidents around the world across various industries.

What is IoT Remote Monitoring? – The focus here is on industrial incidents and how the Internet of Things (IoT) technology could be harnessed to prevent such incidents and or at least reduce the consequences. Briefly, any IoT remote monitoring and control system would consist of a Gateway, which is connected to the internet via WiFi or Ethernet, that communicates with Sensors, Actuators and other Devices installed in the field. The communication link between the devices and the Gateway could be wireless or directly wired depending on the needs of the location and device type. The Gateway aggregates and transmits the data to the cloud servers that can be accessed through a device App or browser. The system could also be programmed to send direct SMS alerts or Emails automatically to designated IDs when user-defined setpoints are exceeded or a system failure occurs. Can such an IoT monitoring system prevent an incident or mitigate the consequences of such an event? Let us take up a specific case and analyze.

A Case Study – Let us take the example of an incident at a chemical manufacturer, at Visakhapatnam in Southern India during the pandemic. The company produces engineering plastics and polystyrene used in the production of insulating and packaging materials. A huge volume of monomer Styrene was stored in two tanks of capacity 2500 kiloliters (KL) and 3500 KL on location. Styrene monomer is a colorless liquid that is unstable and self-polymerizes at temperatures above 20 Deg.C. Self-polymerization of Styrene generates enormous heat which in turn accelerates polymerization leading to a runaway reaction and uncontrolled release of toxic vapor. Therefore, monomer Styrene needs to be stored below 20 deg C. with periodic addition of an inhibiting agent as an additional measure to prevent self-polymerization and employment of a mixing system to ensure even distribution of the inhibiting agent. Styrene is classified as a Toxic substance and also as a possible carcinogen i.e., cancer-causing.

The Catastrophic Incident – According to investigative news reports, as a result of alleged lapses on the part of the organization during the shutdown due to the Corona pandemic multiple failures occurred leading to the emission of Styrene vapor in the intervening night of the 6th and 7th May 2020. A runaway reaction had taken place pushing the vapor concentration in the ambient air several times above the allowable lethal limits. So serious was the extent of the incident that forensic experts who visited the location recorded temperatures above 140 degrees two days after the incident in the 2500 KL tank in which the runaway reaction had taken place. The concentration of Styrene in the air was so high above the allowable lethal levels that it resulted in the death of 11 people from among plant personnel and residents of villages in 3 to 5 Km radius of the plant. Upwards of a thousand needed medical attention due to breathing difficulties and respiratory illnesses, and more than three hundred were hospitalized. All because no timely detection was made. Neither the plant personnel nor the Local Administration initiated remedial action or raised an alarm until things got out of hand. By then people including children were dead and scores were affected. No one knew what was causing the deaths. Even the State Government Health Care authorities had no clue as to what kind of mitigating measures were to be employed to counter the effect of Styrene vapor.

Could this have been prevented? If someone were to ask if an IoT remote monitoring and control system prevented this incident from occurring, the answer is an emphatic YES. A chemical manufacturing unit of this size and nature would have had a certain minimum level of instrumentation with a local control room for supervisory control and action. This ought to have included means to monitor continuous operation of mixers or agitators in the tank, devices to measure parameters such as tank temperature at multiple points around the periphery, volumetric flow of inhibitor, and sensors for measuring the concentration of styrene vapor inside the tank, in the vent lines, and in the periphery of the tanks and plant area. This is a hypothetical assumption and what level of instrumentation and automation infrastructure was actually provided in reality at this plant is anyone’s guess because this information is unavailable in the public domain at this time.

IoT Remote Monitoring System: Assuming this level of instrumentation and automation was provided, had a remote-monitoring IoT system configured to send automated alerts by SMS and Email to plant maintenance supervisors and senior managers been interfaced with the plant control system, the evolution of the alarming situation could have been detected and proper remedial actions initiated well before the runaway reaction occurred. Additionally, styrene vapor sensors could have been placed at strategic locations around the plant periphery and linked through the IoT system to sound alarms in the surrounding villages and send SMS and Email alerts to the village-, town-, district-level administration, police, and Disaster Management Agency resulting in timely relief measures. An IoT infrastructure described above could have prevented the incident altogether, or at the least, mitigated the consequences and prevented the loss of lives.

Call for Action: It is high time the Governments and Occupational Health and Safety Regulatory Agencies world over initiate action to classify industries according to the hazardous nature of substances, chemicals stored, handled, and manufactured. Furthermore, industry experts must be involved to identify the parameters that need to be continuously monitored by the organizations concerned and chart regulation to make it mandatory for these organizations to set up remote monitoring infrastructure and link them up with the concerned Government agencies charged with pollution control and disaster relief so that there is oversight over operations at these industrial production units that store, process, or manufacture hazardous substances. Doing so will be effective utilization of technology that can prevent such catastrophic incidents and eliminate loss of lives.

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