No Capital Investment Without a Security Concept

Security in the Chemical Industry: Current Projects at Merck, a Science and Technology Company

26.04.2022 - The virtual Wiley GIT Panel Discussion on “Security in the Chemical Industry” was held around a year ago. The topics not only included the shortage of skilled personnel and digitisation – but also trends in society at large, including the increased incidence of conspiracy theorists as well as Islamists.

In the future, GIT SECURITY will keep on addressing both these and other issues that are currently on the minds of those in charge of security at chemical industry sites. Matthias Erler from GIT SECURITY spoke to Dr. Peter Schäfer and Bernd Saßmannshausen from the Fire Prevention and Security department at Merck in Darmstadt about the current hot topics at Merck.

The Challenge of the Shortage of Skilled Personnel
For the first time in years, Merck has resumed its recruitment of trainee protection and security experts. According to Dr. Peter Schäfer this is how the company intends to gradually solve the problem of finding skilled personnel, an issue that is partly being caused by demographic factors. He said this had been preceded by a phase of placing greater emphasis on optimisation and, in cases of doubt, resorting to the German Act on Temporary Agency Work (AÜG). Like many other companies, Merck has also noticed the decline in the general educational standards of people in the early stages of their careers, which has been the subject of a good deal of comment. Particularly when it came to the fire service role – which is one of the training pathways offered at Merck – they were finding that the physical condition and fitness of new trainees was not up to scratch more frequently than had previously been the case. Stamina and co-ordination are however essential: after all, fire service staff need to be all-rounders who are good at swimming, running and carrying heavy loads, and they must be as agile as possible at the scene of the fire. For example, they might occasionally have to “run up to the third floor and rescue a 90-kilo man from the building and be able to push themselves to the limit”, says Bernd Saßmannshausen in a nutshell. At the same time, he insists that the young men and women – who may, for example, also need a lifesaver certificate – are very dedicated. Merck offers them all manner of opportunities for advancement, e.g. in the form of part-time study.

Merck is no different from other companies in that the digitisation of processes is an ongoing task that affects all divisions. Merck has a highly skilled IT team dedicated to Security and Fire Response, which is responsible for overseeing a small special-purpose network with a firewall to protect it against external attacks. The systems are required to operate at full capacity while meeting the most stringent of availability requirements. Business-critical functions have to be taken into account constantly. Dr. Schäfer explains that, in contrast to the Group IT services as a whole, it is not possible to rely on the outsourcing of responsibilities here. The reason for this, he says, is that in the field of security, most of the software you deal with is not of the standard kind but is specialist software of a pretty exotic nature – e.g. for fire prevention or incident response control systems. He said that while you can call upon vendor support, there is also a great deal you can do yourself. He said this was also necessary, because, if specialists and support are to detect and rectify errors, they must be able to speak to one another on equal terms.

However, digitisation also covers accounting for services, the associated documentation and general order processing (e.g. via a tablet). This leads to significant reductions in workloads, stresses Bernd Saßmannshausen, adding that digitisation also leads to faster and more efficient exchange of information. Intensive networking within the company makes it possible to utilise data and information that are actually already available. In turn, this means that the latest versions of this data and these plans are always available when needed in the context of fire service and security operations. This now makes it possible, adds Dr. Schäfer, to make use of the standard tools that are available everywhere, such as Teams meetings. Nowadays, images can be transferred to the control centre immediately and from anywhere – by mobile phone and via a standard WiFi connection – in the past, this would only have been possible after a lot of inconvenient preparation work.

Coronavirus and its Consequences
According to Peter Schäfer, what the pandemic has highlighted overall is the need for a site to be working on its crisis resistance all the time. He says that the company’s senior managers are now more sure of that than ever before. We must be prepared not just for any new pandemics, but also for heavy rain events, such as those in the Aar valley or ones like them. During the coronavirus pandemic, a great deal of ad hoc learning has been taking place. Although hazard prevention is, by its very nature, part and parcel of a fire fighter’s thinking, a problem will occupy that person for one day at the most, and definitely not for a year or more.

Several task forces were set up at the Darmstadt site in order to tackle the pandemic. One lesson learnt from the Covid19 period is that task forces of this nature have to be established at an early stage. At the same time, it is important to consider that managing a task force of this kind is a full-time job. Networking with other sites is essential at all times to keep track of the situation and maintain communication – sometimes on a global scale. Matters relating to employment law – such as the issue of short-term working from home – must always be clarified in collaboration with the Human Resources department.

At Merck, stresses Bernd Saßmanns­hausen, some of the rules imposed by the coronavirus task forces are stricter than legally required. This applies for example to the arrangements for returning to work after an infection, suspected cases, etc. The company has also done a lot to protect itself, particularly as far as critical areas are concerned. One specific example concerns the operational capability of the in-house wastewater treatment plant. According to Dr. Schäfer, it would be an absolute disaster if that had to be shut down. Office employees can of course work from home – but that does not apply to security, to the fire service, to workshops responsible for servicing equipment or to the area of power supply. These require people to be on site. These efforts certainly paid off – have done a great deal to ensure that there were sufficient staff in these Divisions at all times.

From the outset of the pandemic, we realised that we could not isolate ourselves – e.g. we implemented a dedicated security concept so that we could put skilled workers from Austria – which was classified as a country of high risk – to work on our systems; otherwise, we would have been at risk of a shutdown. We also procured protective clothing and FFP2 masks at a very early stage, since large quantities of these items are also required for regular production processes.

Efficient processes were promptly put into place for security at the entrance gate – for example, visitors were accompanied, lorry drivers from high-risk areas had to remain in their cab at all times. Issues which might appear to be trivial were, according to Peter Schäfer, often particularly challenging. For security staff, deciding whether or not to admit an employee from an external company could be a stressful experience: it might well relate to a really important repair job – but, on the other hand, protection against infection must be maintained. Merck drew up standards for this in the first few weeks of the pandemic.

Bernd Saßmannshausen explains that a dedicated test centre was also set up, but that – for example – people have not had to have their temperature taken on the way in. According to him, this technology is not reliable enough and might simply provide a false sense of security: for example, a person might have been standing in a queue in the sunshine, with the upshot that the thermometer gives a false reading of fever.

Current Security Projects
Merck is able to look back on a number of structural developments which have improved the status of security over the last two years. Dr. Peter Schäfer and Bernd Saßmannshausen say that fire prevention and security are now a fixed and integral part of any capital investment proposal at Merck. Enquiries are built into the decision-making process to find out what needs to be considered from a fire prevention and security perspective in the context of a particular project. Unless these boxes are ticked, the approval process will not progress any further. A typical example of this would be the approval of a new building in the research department. From the outset, a security concept is drawn up and implemented based on a risk assessment. The format for the risk assessment was jointly developed by employees from the Security department in Darmstadt and various colleagues from the Group’s international sites; this is now used worldwide throughout the Group. A corresponding evaluation system for fire prevention is currently under development. Business continuity is a key factor to be considered in this context – and is part of the reason why the fire prevention and security concepts often go beyond what is required by law. The protection of research results – which are sometimes the fruit of years and years of work – is naturally of vital importance from a business perspective.

Another major fire prevention project has also been undertaken at Merck, this time in relation to the fire alarm systems. These have been completely renewed and digitised in their entirety. Schäfer and Saßmannshausen report that this project was used as an opportunity to streamline and optimise all the processes involved. This involved reviewing everything done to date. As a result, decisions are now being made more quickly and, thanks to the minimisation of errors, a higher level of security has also been achieved. Previously, it was usual for data to be entered into an Excel table manually – along with all the associated typing errors and transposed digits that inevitably occurred – but this has now been replaced by fully digital processes as part of a Six Sigma (Black Belt) process. This brings us close to a 100% solution.

Dr. Schäfer sums the situation up as follows: “What we have realised above all is that a good description of processes is becoming increasingly important.” However, if something does not work in analogue form, e.g. with paper and pencil, it is not automatically going to improve just because it gets digitised. On the other hand, anything that works well in analogue form can also be digitised. However, the process actually has to work, eventualities must be mapped – and then the programmers convert it into digital form.

The future user must be involved from the word go. After all, it is pointless if an area is protected but the forklift truck cannot get inside it. Instead of that, the security measures facilitate a high volume of goods movement and are designed to ensure that the forklift truck driver does not have to keep getting in and out. Another example is the fire door, which has to be held open all the time, because users have to come and go continually. Solutions simply have to be matched to the process every time.

Although there are lots of standard solutions available on the market to accommodate all of this, they often do not fit the bill because of the sheer variety of different requirements on the Merck Campus that are imposed by offices, research facilities, the level of explosion protection required, etc. It is a similar story when it comes to facilities for storing keys at the gate and the workshops. There are only a few people within the company who are able to switch off the burglar alarm system, yet other people are constantly coming and going from the Merck Innovation Center. However, even if the system is activated at the site perimeter from a specific time onwards, it is still possible to leave the building from the inside at any time without the alarm being triggered. The motion sensors are activated only if someone tries to enter from outside.

One of the latest developments takes account of the fact that employees sometimes need to gain access to the office at night because of time differences, e.g. to hold conferences with Asia or the USA, explains Bernd Saßmannshausen. This has to be made temporarily possible to enable technical discussions to take place, for example. The alarm and security systems have been adapted to these requirements as appropriate for the users concerned.

Environment and Emissions Protection
To an extent, the Security and Fire Prevention department at Merck also deals with environment-related matters – for its own purposes and also in the role of an internal service provider.

For example, a third party is currently constructing a fourth treatment stage within the wastewater treatment plant. As this is concerned with trace substances in wastewater, it directly affects the Security and Fire Prevention department: for instance, many airports – among others – used to use the general-purpose AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam) extinguishing agent. This is gradually being prohibited by specific deadlines. Alternatives which do not leave behind any harmful trace substances are currently being tested. However, you cannot just use any old extinguishing agent in the chemical industry. This is because chemicals can destroy extinguishing foams, for example. At the same time, this is precisely the kind of situation where you need extinguishing foams which are very fast acting – for example, you need to be able to cover a fuel depot in foam within a matter of minutes. Joint projects are also being carried out with other companies in these areas at association level – with the research being accompanied by sponsorship for university graduates.

Overall, Merck has set itself the target of becoming climate neutral across the entire Group by 2040. Just like all the other parts of the Group, the Fire Prevention and Security department is involved in achieving this target. This includes projects such as the transition to electrical vehicles, replacement of the air conditioning systems in buildings and the power supplies for buildings. Even the choice of raw materials and products used – along the entire supply chain – is being reviewed. Efforts are also being made to obtain relevant certifications.

In the interest of climate protection, the Science and Technology Park in Gernsheim has also been turned into a green tech park. The concern everywhere is to keep on developing technology – with a view to creating a better future.


Merck KGaA

Frankfurter Str. 250
64293 Darmstadt