Prevent Catastrophic Incidents Using IoT Remote Monitoring

A catastrophic incident is one that results in either massive casualties or property damage or both with its effects extending beyond the immediate geographical boundaries where the incident happened. Their effects last over an extended period; even a whole generation, depending upon the nature and severity of the incident. Such an incident could be a natural occurrence or due to manmade reasons. 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 lighten their consequences. Briefly, any IoT remote monitoring and control system would consist of a Gateway connected to the internet via WiFi or Ethernet. Sensors, Actuators and other Devices installed in the field communicate with the Gateway either directly or through a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC). The communication link between the devices and the Gateway could be wireless or directly wired depending on the location. The Gateway enables access to data collected by the IoT system through the cloud and is available for access through a Dashboard either through a device App or browser. The system could also be programmed to send SMS alerts or Emails automatically to designated IDs when user-defined setpoints are exceeded or a system failure occurs. These messages can be calibrated to serve the purpose of alerting people at the right level for taking action and escalating the issue to follow up if no action is forthcoming from the first level.

A Case Study – Consider the example of the most recent incident at a chemical manufacturer, the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam, Southern India as it is fresh in our minds. The company manufactures engineering plastics and polystyrene used in the production of plastics, 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 DegC. Self-polymerization of Styrene generates heat that accelerates polymerization and is known to cause runaway reactions and vaporization. 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. 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 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; plant personnel and residents from 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 from happening had there been a basic IoT remote monitoring and control system in place? 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 devices to measure parameters such as tank temperature at multiple points around the periphery, volumetric flow of inhibitor, sensors for measuring the concentration of styrene vapor inside the tank, in vent lines and the periphery of the tanks and plant and operation of mixers or agitators in the tank. This is the minimum level of instrumentation a chemical plant of this size and nature would be expected to have as per good engineering design practice. What level of instrumentation and automation infrastructure is provided in reality at the LG Polymers plant can’t be stated with certainty based on the information available in the public domain at this time.

It is high time Governments and Health and Safety Agencies world over classify industries according to the nature of hazardous substances handled by them and make it mandatory for these organizations to set up remote monitoring infrastructure. Linking this up with the concerned Government agencies charged with pollution control and disaster relief would enable oversight over their operations continually.

IoT Remote Monitoring System: Had a system that is programmed to send automated alerts by SMS and Email to plant maintenance supervisors and senior managers been in place the failures could have been detected and proper remedial action initiated before the runaway reaction occurred. Styrene vapor sensors could have been placed around the plant periphery and linked through the IoT cloud system to sound alarms in the surrounding villages and send SMS and Email alerts to the Town level, District and Provincial level Administration, Police, Pollution Control Board, Disaster Management Agency resulting in timely relief measures. This could have prevented the incident altogether or at the least mitigated the consequences.

Call for Action: It is high time the Governments and Industrial Health and Safety Agencies world over initiate action to classify industries according to the nature of hazardous substances, chemicals stored, handled, and manufactured. Bring about regulation to identify the parameters to be continuously monitored by the organizations concerned and 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 are supervisory controls and oversight over operations at these industrial production units. Doing so will be effective implementation of technology that is readily available, affordable and that can prevent such catastrophic incidents and eliminate loss of lives.

What are your experiences implementing IoT Remote Monitoring for critical applications? Within industrial sites, among communities in the vicinity of hazardous industries; let us have your feedback on this subject. If you are a manufacturer or provider of such applications share details, use cases so that we can share it for the benefit of our readers.

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