Petrochemical plants work to assure continuity amid logistic, workforce challenges

Petrochemical plants have set up emergency response teams and readied special Covid-19 staffing plans while implementing remote working where possible, according to the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) association.

Image courtesy of Rauschenberger/Pixabay

Petrochemical companies are readying business continuity plans as they begin to face logistic and workforce challenges related to the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak.

Companies have set up separate teams to address medical, logistics, safety and security challenges that meet regularly to assess changes, said on March 19, 2020 Jeff Gunnulfsen, senior director of security and risk management at the AFPM.

Plants are keeping close contact with energy officials, as well as with Coast Guard and other authorities, Gunnulfsen said.

Past hurricane events provided experience in putting in place skeleton teams that could keep operations going even if widespread illness cases were to significantly impact the workforce, he said.

“A hurricane may be a shorter event, but many processes and procedures during those events are still applicable. Many of our sites are considered critical infrastructure, so they’ve been held to higher standards of preparedness,” Gunnulfsen added.

Meantime, access of visitors to most petrochemical plants have been limited to a minimum and health checks on employees are ongoing. Disinfecting has also been intensified.

Trucking national emergency declared

The U.S. Department of Transportation said on March 18 it has issued a national emergency declaration that allows drivers “to work for longer stretches.”

This applies to trucks moving medical supplies and equipment, soap and disinfectants, food, temporary housing and quarantine facilities, as well as transportation of emergency personnel.

The American Trucking Associations (ATS) said on March 18 it requested the United States Executive branch to “not impede the safe and efficient flow of trucks carrying essential loads.”

“Confusion and lack of clarity are causing delays and problems,” the letter said.

The confusion is related to closures and restriction by governments, “especially state and local,” that may put obstacles that hamper the work of truckers to deliver vital supplies.

Specific requests include work to keep highway rest areas open as they are “an irreplaceable component” along with commercial truck stops, it added.

Truckers, who are typically working far away from home, also need guidance on public health assets on the road that they could access for emergencies, including possible testing for Covid-19.

“Absent policies like these, it will be more difficult to ensure that the shelves are stocked and emergency supplies reach first responders and medical personnel,” the letter said.

Panic-buying of freight, and the need to restock shelves, have resulted in a surge in demand, according to FreightWaves, a publication specialized in covering transportation that tracks spot prices of freight services.

“Shippers, especially those moving consumer packaged goods, are at the mercy of their carriers,” a March 21 FreightWaves report said.

Trucking is mostly used for specialty chemicals, and also for moving petrochemicals like plastic resins in shorter stretches, such as from warehouses to ports.

Shippers had enjoyed competitive rates just a month earlier.

Rail transportation impacted by coronavirus

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) reported on March 18, 2020 that data as of the end of the week ending March 14 showed that the coronavirus is already having an impact.

“The fact that overall intermodal originations last week were the lowest for the same week since 2013 is strong evidence that the coronavirus is impacting intermodal volumes,” said AAR senior vice president John Gray.

“This is emphasized by the fact that four of the five carriers of intermodal traffic from West Coast ports, the principal gateways serving the Chinese trade, saw declines in their intermodal business,” he added.

“Similar declines in the East also suggest that the problem has begun to spread to other regions of the supply chain,” Gray said.

Intermodal was “likely to see the earliest impacts from the coronavirus because large amounts of intermodal traffic go to or come from ports,” Gray said. Half of U.S. intermodal traffic relates to exports or imports.

For the week ending March 14 there were 226,039 carloads, down 5.9% on-year, while U.S. weekly intermodal volume was 236,978 containers and trailers, down 9.1% from 2019, according to the AAR.

However, the on-year comparison for that particular week may not be an accurate indicator because of flooding and harsh winter weather last year so comparing with data as far back as 2013 is a better indicator, the AAR said.

Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America (including Canada and Mexico) was 644,982 carloads and intermodal units, down 6.4% from the same week in 2019.

North American rail volume for the first 11 weeks of 2020 was 7.2 million carloads and intermodal units, down 5.3% from the same week a year earlier.

Carloads normally transport a single commodity and are most commonly used for petrochemical products like plastic resins. In addition to train and trucks, petrochemicals also depend on waterborne and pipeline transport.

By Renzo Pipoli