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After Refinery Blast, BP Picks RFID

When a series of explosions at BP's Texas City, Tex. refinery on March 23, 2005 killed 15 workers and injured more than 100 others, it was the worst U.S. industrial accident in 15 years. BP was fined a record $21.3 million by the U.S. government, paid out over $700 million in compensation after the tragedy, funded an independent panel headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III to examine the company's safety culture and procedures, and built a new office building in downtown Texas City for about 400 BP administrative and managerial staff.

The accident also hastened a program launched by BP's information-technology division to develop an RFID-based employee tracking system. An initial trial of the network, known as the "Location Aware Safety System," is scheduled to get underway this week at the BP refinery in Cherry Point, Wash.

"In the past we used a very arduous process of sorting and counting [workers at the gates], says Bill Campin, evacuation coordinator at the Cherry Point plant. "The count can be off by 100. It takes hours or all day to reconcile. We've needed something like this for years."

Work on the new RFID personnel tracking system had begun as long as a year before the Texas City blast, says Curt Smith, director of application technologies in BP's office of the CTO, and the program was accelerated in the months after the tragedy.

One of 14 wholly-owned BP refineries around the world, the Texas City facility had outmoded venting stacks that had not been replaced by a more modern flaring system. When the plant's distillation tower was restarted on March 23 after routine maintenance, a pressure build-up caused a geyser-like release of flammable hydrocarbon liquid and vapor from an atmospheric vent stack. The eruption caused at least five explosions, killing 15 people who were in or near temporary mobile trailers near the unit.

The blast came 59 years after a massive explosion on a (non-BP) ship anchored at the Texas City port on Galveston Bay killed almost 600 and decimated the town.

To ensure the safety of its refinery workers in the event of future emergencies, BP has developed badges with active RFID technology that can locate employees and visitors throughout the 64-acre Cherry Point plant (except for the bathrooms) and trigger an alert if an employee badge is motionless for a set time period.

Greg Rust, safety manager at the Cherry Point plant, originally considered a mesh WiFi network to cover the plant, but found that an 802.11-based system was not accurate enough, consumed too much power, and wouldn't signal frequently enough. The company wound up establishing an ultra-wideband network from Multispectral Solutions that uses the existing plant WiFi network for backhaul. The badges use embedded 1-watt RFID tags.

The tags, which are read by proximity readers as employees or visitors enter the plant, cost about $40 apiece; upgrading the gate readers cost about $150,000. Built on top of the existing WiFi network, the entire network will cost under $1 million to install, says Smith. To build a plant-wide WiFi network from scratch would probably cost about a quarter of a million dollars.

If the project works -- i.e., if the system successfully tracks workers as they move about the plant and registers the appropriate alarms -- it will eliminate unnecessary "sweeps," or searches for missing personnel after accidents or evacuations, and reduce the time for rescue personnel to reach injured or trapped victims. Ultimately, of course, the goal is to save lives.

That goal remains urgent. An explosion in January at a chemical plant in Morganton, N.C., owned by Synthron killed one worker and injured 14 others.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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