Project Management Equals Project Safety

Global Construction Manager Steven Troxell understands that in order to build safely, one must have an attitude of continuous improvement

It’s fair to say that The Dow Chemical Company is the definitive global company. Incorporating 189 manufacturing sites in 34 countries, it produces more than 7,000 product families for customers in 175 countries. The sites where the company manufactures plastics, ethylene oxide, acrylates, surfactants, cellulose resins, Styrofoam, and agricultural chemicals are located near feedstocks. Many of them are natural gas- or petroleum-based and close to markets and transportation hubs. But it may be difficult to guess what The Dow Chemical Company encounters during some of its greenfield building projects—snakes. Plus owls, macaws, and other animal life that is often found when initiating a building project.

That’s where Steven Troxell lends his expertise. As the global construction manager at The Dow Chemical Company, Troxell and his team deal with those snakes and other fauna with a preservation and sustainability mind-set (live capture and release to a hospitable environment). This includes everywhere from South America to the Middle East and back to the United States, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico.

The company provides protection to both wildlife and people in the area, which of course means that worker safety is as valued as the indigenous inhabitants where the company builds. Much of the construction is adjacent to existing facilities, such as where the company adds instrumentation, pumps, or filters. But Troxell’s construction organization has overseen some monumental projects, including Sadara Chemical Company, a Saudi Arabian joint venture between Dow and Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco), a state-owned petroleum and natural gas company.

“Sadara was constructed between 2011 and the end of 2016 in Jubail Industrial City (Saudi Arabia),” Troxell explains. “It’s the world’s largest chemical complex ever built in a single phase, with 26 integrated world-scale manufacturing plants that will produce over 3 million tons of capacity per annum at full operation with an investment of about $20 billion.”

The project was so sprawling that Dow Chemical practically had to build a small city just to accommodate the 60,000 workers employed at the remote desert site. In that pop-up city, which Troxell notes is bigger than the town he grew up in, Port Arthur, Texas, were workers who came from all around the world, speaking at least 20 languages. So how is something such as safety enforced when the words for no, careful, stop, and look out need translation?

“Dow believes in advancing the well-being of humanity by helping lead the transition to a sustainable planet and society.” 

“Every worker wears a lanyard that has the eight-sided stop sign on it,” Troxell explains. “Anyone can hold it up to signal unsafe conditions. Then, the work stops and everyone huddles to identify the unsafe conditions and to figure out how to do it safely.”

Troxell speaks of safety and sustainability as two sides of the same coin. “Dow believes in advancing the well-being of humanity by helping lead the transition to a sustainable planet and society,” Troxell says, adding that he and his team ensure there are no leaks or spills on a job site in order to protect both workers and the ecosystem.

He also attributes this sustainable and safety-oriented approach for these mega-projects to a couple of institutional factors. One is that projects are construction-driven, by which he means a focus on the logistics and supply chain of deliverables to the field.

“All the engineering, equipment, and material deliverables arrive in the correct sequence to facilitate the optimum safety and productivity in the field,” he says.

Troxell adds that while it may seem as if those factors would be a matter of course on all construction, it’s “a problem that has plagued our industry, so we decided to do something about it.”

The second factor is Dow’s own construction tech center. This brain trust of the global team has been in place for more than a decade. “It’s become a real game changer over the last year. When some of our mega-projects were completed, we fortified our tech center with very knowledgeable construction experts who work within project teams to promote a construction-driven mind-set,” Troxell says.

The company works under both owner-driven EPC (engineering procurement construction), as well as contractor-managed approaches, depending on the project. But even when it’s the latter, working with contractors (typically on the larger projects), Troxell prefers an active owner participation and position.

Troxell cites Ed Merrow, founder and president of Independent Project Analysis, Inc., who believes the owner/manager is more involved in the earliest stages of a project: “To ensure constructability issues are addressed, design packages are properly sequenced, and lay down areas available, etc.,” Merrow wrote in a paper titled, “How Can I Get Project Performance to Improve?” He continues, “The owner/construction manager is not managing work in the field. Instead, they make sure someone else can do that efficiently and safely.”

Troxell says this owner capability and owner mind-set enables Dow Chemical to foster continuous innovation.

“We have a feedback loop from construction back to engineering to continually improve how we design and build more safely and efficiently,” Troxell explains. “In addition, we partner very closely with our businesses to continually improve upon our plant designs. For example, we are currently looking at how we can reduce the footprint of our next plant to design it more efficiently and less costly than the last plant.”

One way to do this is the use of radio frequency identification to manage the physical location of materials and equipment. “It is a technology that can really bring value to construction-driven execution by keeping tabs on everything in the supply chain,” Troxell says. “Critical equipment and material did not get displaced.”

All of these technologies and management practices are currently applied to several projects in the United States, specifically along the Louisiana and Texas coastlines. Largely built to process shale gas and referred to as Dow’s US Gulf Coast investments, the company is investing more than $6 billion in the facilities. One plant in Freeport, Texas, is for ethylene production, while expansions at the Plaquemine, Louisiana, facility produce ethylene, polyethylene, and next-generation synthetic rubber.

Collectively, Dow’s US Gulf Coast investment job sites will employ roughly 10,000 construction workers—people whose safety is foremost on Troxell’s mind and will benefit from all that is learned in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

There will also be quite a few snakes, owls, alligators, and armadillos that will be spared life and limb.