Human error increasingly a factor contributing to pipeline leaks

Human error — whether it’s burying a pipeline too shallow or not fastening bolts tight enough

Human error increasingly a factor contributing to pipeline leaks

CALGARY — Human error — whether it’s burying a pipeline too shallow or not fastening bolts tight enough— is increasingly a factor contributing to pipeline leaks, federal data suggests.

Figures compiled by the National Energy Board show that in the past three years, incorrect operation — which covers everything from failing to follow procedures to using equipment improperly — has caused an average of 20 leaks per year. That’s up from an average of four annually in the previous six years.

“It’s both probably one of the most difficult things for an organization to deal with, but also the most important,” said Mark Fleming, a professor of safety culture at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

Fleming said operators have made improvements in safety practices, but to achieve the higher levels of safety required by other industries such as the airline or nuclear power sectors would require extreme attention to detail.

What may seem inconsequential at first can later contribute to a disaster, Fleming said.

“It’s like a ball balancing on the top of a pyramid,” he said.

“Safety, particularly very high levels of safety, requires constant attention and effort. And the tendency is for it to degrade.”

Pipelines installed in the U.S. in the past five years have the highest rate of failure of any built since the 1920s, and human error is partially to blame, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Washington-based Pipeline Safety Trust.

“A lot of new pipelines being put in the ground just aren’t being installed right, or things don’t get tightened up quite enough, so within the first year or two things fail,” said Weimer.

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