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UPM Pietarsaari begins pulp mill maintenance

A pulp mill requires maintenance to stay in top condition. Maintaining something this big is challenge enough, but COVID-19 adds a whole new dimension to the task.

Everyone knows they need to maintain their car. Every so often you change the oil, replace filters and check equipment like the tyres and battery. The basic idea is to keep your car running smoothly, efficiently and find any potential problems before they occur. The same concept can be applied to things on a massive scale, like a pulp mill.

UPM’s Pietarsaari pulp mill is truly a massive operation. Located on Finland’s west coast, it has hundreds of employees who process 800,000 tonnes of pulp annually. Just like your car, it needs to maintained every so often. This year, the shutdown began on October 12 and is scheduled to last for approximately three weeks.

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Maintenance is necessary for a quality product

“We shut down for maintenance about every year and a half,” says Simon Fagerudd, General Manager, UPM Pietarsaari pulp mill. “We do this to service the equipment and make sure we are able to produce and deliver the quality product our customers expect.”

Maintaining a pulp mill is a serious endeavour. Tubes, reactors, boilers and tanks are checked. Motors and bearings are replaced.

“It is an extensive operation,” says Fagerudd. “This time we decided to change the superheaters in the recovery boiler. We are also making an upgrade to the birch line that will be really good for our customers.”

Normally about 300 people work at the mill, but this swells to 1,600 when people arrive for a major round of maintenance. These workers include UPM staff as well as specialist contractors. Additionally, there are other necessary people who are not directly involved in mill maintenance, like cooks and drivers. It takes a number of days to prepare for the shutdown, about three weeks to do the maintenance and a few more days to get back up to speed again.

COVID-19 changes everything

The schedule called for the Pietarsaari mill to shut down for maintenance in May 2020, but something happened which disrupted the plan: COVID-19.

“We follow government guidelines and advice from health authorities,” Fagerudd explains. “During maintenance we have many people travel to the mill, including from outside Finland, and we knew we couldn’t do that as we originally planned.”

Aki Huomo is Safety Manager for UPM Pulp Finland Operations. Safety is always the top priority. Normally during maintenance procedures his job is to support the Pietarsaari safety team and organisation to make sure employees and contractors stay safe at the mill. Things such as wearing hard hats, using safety lines and properly operating equipment is what he normally thinks about, but now with COVID-19 he had an entirely new issue to consider.

“We delayed maintenance for a few months which gave us time to get a better understanding of COVID-19,” Huomo says. “We were able to implement proactive and preventive procedures so we could do our necessary work safely.”

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Doing your job safely

One example is the “bubble” strategy. Instead of treating the entire mill as one site, it is broken down into a number of different blocks. If your job is to carry out maintenance in one bubble, you don’t go into any other areas. The idea is that if a COVID-19 infection occurs in one bubble it doesn’t spread through the entire mill.

“We also use more virtual meeting and learning tools,” Huomo continues. “Before you are allowed on site you have to have safety training. Now you can do it online. Also, we have many meetings during maintenance to stay on top of what is happening. Now, all these meetings will be online.”

Sometimes special procedures are necessary. Maintaining a pulp mill requires skilled experts, not all of whom are local. If these specialists fly into Finland, they are required to take a COVID-19 test.

And, of course, everyone at the mill follows the procedures the world is now used to: use face masks, maintain good hand hygiene and keep a safe social distance. When everyone works together they can take care of the mill as well as their health.

“I look forward to shut down, because it is an opportunity to see the mill from the inside,” Fagerudd says. “We look inside the process equipment and see where to make positive changes for the future.” While this period continues to throw up unique challenges, the team is confident it will go as smoothly as ever. However, one thing is for sure: it will be a maintenance shutdown like no other.

 

Text: David Cord