The Critical Importance of Compliance: How Neglecting Chemical Plant Inspections Puts Lives at Risk

Chemical plants are a critical piece of the puzzle to the solutions of our everyday lives, factories filled with potent solutions to our needs, from medicines to the plastics that help create the phones in our hands. They are unspoken architects of the modern lifestyle, presiding over the balance of delicate compounds that can heal, fuel, or—when mishandled—destroy. But who watches over this infrastructure to ensure that it continues to work seamlessly and that the rules of safety are always front and center? The answer is, or rather should be, elaborate, recurrent, and non-negotiable chemical plant structural inspections.

Chemical Plant Inspections: The Basics

Plant inspections are the diagnostic heartbeat of any chemical facility. They are the scheduled check-ups that gauge the health of a plant’s systems, the soundness of its structures, and the sanctity of its processes. These inspections come in various forms and frequencies, ranging from routine visual checks to complex non-destructive testing (NDT) that examines equipment without compromising its integrity in any way. We'll begin by understanding the fundamental inspection processes that safeguard chemical plants:

Routine Visual Inspections

At the surface level, visual inspections are straightforward—they're all about observing the condition of assets. These checks are often daily and require keen-eyed staff to note any oddities, rust, corrosion, or even simple signs of wear. Timely visual inspections prove to be the first line of defense against potential disasters, ensuring issues are caught early and, thus, at their most rectifiable state.

Non-Destructive Testing (NDT)

The second tier involves non-destructive testing methods such as ultrasonic testing (UT), radiographic testing (RT), and magnetic particle testing (MPT), which are used to probe the depth of potential flaws without disassembling the equipment, whether it's piping, pressure vessels, or storage tanks. 

Structural Integrity Checks

The structural components of a chemical plant—be it the towering stacks or the labyrinthine pipe racks—are vital to its operation. Structural integrity checks are a subset of plant inspections focused solely on ensuring that the plant's scaffoldings, frames, and foundations are sound, enabling the safe operation of all installed equipment.

The Dangers of Neglecting Inspections

Real-life consequences of neglecting chemical plant inspections are weighted with the human toll and environmental havoc, as demonstrated by notorious cases in history…

Chemical Plant Contamination Settlement

In a significant development underscoring the critical importance of chemical plant safety and environmental responsibility, a Belgium-based chemical company agreed to a groundbreaking settlement to address contamination issues in New Jersey last year. The company will allocate nearly $393 million towards the cleanup of hazardous "forever chemicals" in the state's drinking water and soil - a move aimed at rectifying the environmental damage these substances have caused.

This legal settlement comes after the state pursued litigation against the company and other entities to mandate the remediation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination. These chemicals, notorious for their persistence in the environment and difficulty to eliminate from water and soil, pose serious risks to public health, including potential links to kidney and testicular cancer, among other illnesses.

Under the terms of the settlement, this particular company is tasked with an extensive cleanup of contamination at and around its West Deptford plant, situated in southwestern New Jersey, close to Philadelphia. They are also committed to collaborating with the state to minimize ongoing discharges and conduct testing for contaminants in both public and private water sources nearby.

Financially, the agreement stipulates that this entity will pay $214 million to ensure the environmental department has the necessary funds to complete the cleanup, should the company be unable to fulfill its obligations. Furthermore, an additional $100 million is directed towards addressing the impacts of PFAS on drinking water or private wells across over a dozen communities. To compensate for the damage inflicted upon natural resources, they will invest $75 million, alongside a $3.7 million payment to reimburse the environmental department for its enforcement efforts within this case.

This settlement not only highlights the ongoing challenges posed by PFAS chemicals but also sets a precedent for the chemical industry's responsibility toward environmental stewardship and public health.

CATSI’s Solutions

In chemical plants, a myriad of different inspections plays a vital role in ensuring the safety, efficiency, and longevity of operations. From the integrity of structural components to the reliability of piping systems and the maintenance of storage tanks, CATSI deeply understands that meticulous inspections are essential for identifying potential hazards and preventing catastrophic failures. This section explores the importance of these inspections in chemical plants, highlighting key considerations and best practices for maintaining a safe and reliable working environment.

Structural and Mechanical Inspections

Chemical plants comprise a myriad of assets, including but not limited to fixed and rotating equipment, instrumentation, and control systems. All these working pieces rely on a comprehensive network of structural support, encompassing foundations, frames, racks, and other structures crucial for the plant's operation. These structural components are subject to wear and tear, environmental impacts, and potential design or construction flaws, which can lead to catastrophic failures and significant operational disruptions.

Given these risks, it is imperative for facilities to adopt a thorough structural integrity program. Such a program should cover all aspects of structural equipment's lifecycle – from design and construction to inspection, maintenance, and repair. Structural equipment in these settings does not only include the obvious frames and trusses but also extends to safety and access structures critical for the day-to-day operations and safety compliance.

Among the diverse types of structures found in process facilities are steel and concrete frames supporting elevated equipment, foundations for vessels and tanks, pipe racks, and even cooling towers and heater structures. Not to forget are the OSHA-compliant safety structures that ensure safe work environments. To maintain these structures' integrity, facilities should employ a variety of nondestructive testing (NDT) methods for inspections:

  • Visual Inspection
  • Ultrasonic Testing (UT)
  • Phased Array Ultrasonic Testing (PAUT)
  • Liquid Penetrant Testing (PT)
  • Magnetic Particle Testing (MPT)

For hard-to-reach areas, the use of rope access techniques or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for inspections can provide invaluable insights into the health of these critical assets, ensuring that the chemical plants operate safely and efficiently.

Piping inspections 

Piping inspections at chemical plants are not just routine checks; they are a fundamental part of ensuring the safety, efficiency, and longevity of operations. The integrity of piping systems is critical, given the potentially hazardous materials they transport. Pipe supports play a pivotal role in maintaining this integrity. They bear the weight of pipes and absorb thermal expansions and contractions, preventing undue stress that could lead to wear or failure. However, the stability and effectiveness of these supports can diminish over time due to corrosion, fatigue, or inadequate maintenance, underscoring the importance of regular inspections.

NDT inspections are invaluable for active pipelines, allowing for a full evaluation without halting operations. These inspections check for fatigue, corrosion, and manufacturing flaws, ensuring the safety and structural integrity of the piping systems. It's a preventive measure that identifies potential issues before they escalate into serious problems.

Inspecting pipes in environments exposed to natural or external stresses is crucial, particularly in industrial settings where pipes are subjected to increased pressure and adverse conditions. Using reliable and standardized equipment for these inspections can prevent risks and potential injuries. Regular mechanical and environmental inspections ensure that pipes can withstand their operating conditions, making them an essential component of plant safety protocols.

Case Study

To illustrate the importance of piping maintenance, consider the incident at an Oil refinery on August 6, 2012. A carbon steel pipe, part of the refinery's crude oil processing unit and subjected to sulfidation corrosion, failed due to lack of proper maintenance. Despite knowing that corrosion had compromised the pipe's integrity, it went unrepaired. The result was a catastrophic failure: the pipe leaked fuel, leading to a disastrous fire. 

Tank Inspections

In the realm of chemical plant operations, the principle of sustainability is closely tied to the efficient use of assets. Maximizing the operational life of equipment such as storage tanks is not just about extracting the best value from them; it’s about making informed decisions on asset replacement at the most opportune time. This approach not only preserves budgets and materials but also protects the environment by reducing waste and unnecessary consumption of resources.

Tank inspections play a pivotal role in extending the operational life of chemical storage process plant equipment. The specific frequency of these inspections hinges on the nature of the chemicals stored and the materials constructing the tanks. When a tank is first installed, initial measurements and visual external checks are crucial to confirm its safety for use. These checks should be maintained periodically to catch any potential issues early on. The Engineering Equipment and Materials Users Association (EEMUA) recommends conducting regular inspections—daily, weekly, or monthly—and meticulously recording each inspection and its findings for accurate traceability.

A recent project completed by CATSI’s specialty team involved the successful installation of Self-Retracting Lanyards (SRLs) on 13 tank-mounted ladders at a specialty chemical plant. This initiative, aligned with a comprehensive safety strategy, aimed at ensuring compliance with OSHA regulations regarding fall protection on fixed ladders. The commitment to safety extended beyond compliance; it encompassed proactive measures to safeguard the workforce.

Each ladder was equipped with state-of-the-art fall arrest devices to maximize protection. Prior to upgrades, rigorous inspections were conducted to verify the structural integrity of existing ladders. All new fall arrest equipment was meticulously installed and certified, adhering to stringent safety standards. Detailed as-built CAD drawings and comprehensive reports were prepared to facilitate thorough documentation of the upgrades.

Adhering to best practices includes the inspection of the secondary containment areas. Regular checks of these areas are essential for identifying early signs of leaks or damage, allowing for swift remediation to prevent loss of containment incidents. Inspectors assess both the internal and external conditions of the tank, including the base, manways, valves, and supporting structures during an inspection. Indicators signaling the need for a tank replacement include cracks or weaknesses in welds, shell deformation, a sloping or leaning posture, and discoloration or damp areas around the tank. This comprehensive inspection regimen ensures that tanks remain safe and operational, contributing significantly to the sustainability and safety of chemical plant operations.

Investing in Employee Training and Safety Culture

A safety-conscious workforce is a chemical plant’s mightiest asset and compliance is the spine that supports the body of industry safety. In an exclusive interview with CATSI’s Corporate Environmental Health & Safety Specialist, Lori Reising, we delved into the intricacies of safety management within chemical plant environments, exploring crucial OSHA guidelines pivotal to this industry. 

“The chemical industry answers to multiple agencies in its endeavor to keep employees and surrounding populations safe. The emphasis of most regulatory efforts is on awareness, standardization, avoiding errors leading to accidents and minimizing damage in the event that one occurs.   

In the United States chemical industry, the revenue by employee for 2022 was 1.22 million dollars for each employee. The industry features serious hazards and risks to employees.  Among chemical industry fatalities are deaths caused by explosions, burns, and chemical exposure among other causes. Employees have the right to be protected from toxic chemicals. 

Among the regulations that protect employees working in the chemical industry is OSHA’s Process Safety Management Standard, 1910.119. This standard is comprehensive in its scope, proactively requiring that companies engage in a detailed analysis of the process, compiling and analyzing information regarding hazardous chemicals utilized in the process, addressing potential risks, guiding operations with training requirements and procedures, clear requirements for the employer and contractors and much more. A key requirement that CATSI can help with is inspections of process equipment, proactively maintaining mechanical integrity.  Mechanical failure is one preventable cause of accidents. The Process Safety Management standard requires that the employer document each inspection and test that has been performed on process equipment. These measures are critical to safe processing operations.”  

The Sustainability Focus

Maximizing the operational lifespan of chemical plant assets is a sustainability imperative. Tank inspections that maintain and prolong the life of storage vessels are not only testament to a plant's safety commitments but also its environmental stewardship.

Environmental Compliance in Tank Inspections

While tank inspections primarily serve safety needs, they are equally instrumental in ensuring compliance with ecological mandates. A well-maintained tank is one that does not spill its contents into the environment.

The Economic and Ecological Synergy of Regular Tank Inspections

Frequent tank inspections, while incurring operational costs, ultimately bear an economic benefit in mitigating the risk of spillages and avoiding the expensive burden of post-incident environmental remediation.


As we navigate the complexities of safety in chemical plant environments, it's imperative to stay informed and proactive. At CATSI, we understand the unique challenges posed by this industry and are committed to providing comprehensive inspection services that prioritize safety and compliance. Inspections are not the enemy of efficiency or the obstacle to growth—they are the vigilant sentinels of a robust chemical industry architecture that will stand the test of time, trial, and trust. Whether you require routine inspections, compliance audits, or specialized assessments, our team of experts is here to assist you every step of the way. Contact CATSI today to ensure the safety and integrity of your chemical plant operations.