The Dangers of Abandoned Pipes
BY CHRISTINE TORRES
Published January 14, 2021
We all love a good mystery, don’t we? So, imagine a large, dirty pipe that goes behind a wall and seems to vanish. Now imagine being the worker who is about to conduct maintenance on it, or the crew preparing for demolition. Is the pipe two years old or 70? Does it contain gas? Where does it go? On second thought, this might not be the kind of mystery we crave, since not knowing those answers can put workers’ safety at risk.
The American National Standards Institute establishes common standards for pipe marking best practices, and there were a few recent changes. ANSI A13.1-2020 includes some minor updates to enhance the visibility and placement of pipe marking. It also has a new section that covers how to mark abandoned pipes. Workplaces can use ANSI A13.1-2020 to start, support, or progress facility pipe marking management and compliance.
ASME A13.1-2020 changes a few definitions and specifies to apply labels close to any valves or flanges. A new section covers abandoned piping, outlining the usage of a specific color scheme and border for pipe markers.
When it affects worker safety, pipe marking is required by law through OSHA’s general safety requirements. OSHA uses ANSI A13.1 as a guideline of what to do, and even requires compliance with this standard for some specific industries. Different pipe contents make it necessary to check with local authorities to ensure what steps to take before beginning a pipe labeling project. For example, highly hazardous chemicals require the following of process safety management standards.
“Pores of the steel can release some VOCs (volatile organic compounds) or other materials, and then, poof, your cleared line has 30 percent [lower explosive limit], and no one knows what caused it,” said Landon Woods, an EHS professional in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Any accidental connection can have hazards. A Texas facility received a citation in 2020 after failing to develop and implement emergency shutdown procedures and inspect and test its pipes and other process infrastructure. This oversight resulted in a massive fire and explosion. Luckily, no one died. Abandoned pipes, such as gas lines, can also pose a risk of disaster. Pipes that contain different contents can sometimes look similar, leading to accidents. Hence the need for frequent testing for location and leaks and ensuring pipes are marked.
“Characterizing unmarked, repurposed, and/or undocumented pipes is a big part of my work,” said Chris Francy, a safety professional who specializes in demolition in Washington. “(Inside) could be anything from raw water to nitric acid. I’d have a lot less to do if everything were marked using a clear and consistent system, and the documentation was always updated with some sort of configuration control.”
Pipe Labeling Beyond Compliance
Pipe marking is an affordable option and easy to do. Whether buying premade labels or creating ones on-demand that are unique to the facility’s needs, use pipe markers for compliance and efficiency for years to come. Be mindful of a label's size and placement for clear viewing from a safe distance. Pipe marking communicates by saying, “Hey, this is what’s in here,” and effective systems use color-coding to speed up recognition. It's also great to indicate flow direction using arrows to ease maintenance.
The first step is to know the piping system before a workplace starts a labeling project. Management and other support workers should walk around and evaluate the pipe system. Compare and contrast information in blueprints or other documentation. Regularly test function, maintenance, and emergency response for the pipe system. Make sure the proper tools and personal protection equipment are available and documented for instruction. Label according to the data pertinent for safety and compliance. Reinforce pipe marking safety and compliance through continuous training and maintenance, especially when there are changes in the workplace. Labeling pipes is not only a safety best practice, it’s also a way to keep operations efficient and smooth.