Chemical industry looks to best practice in environmental health and safety

05 February 2007 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Environmental health and safety has improved in recent years, but plant accident numbers are still too high. And there is concern that newer players, such as China, have much work to do to improve their environmental impact


Pick up an English newspaper and there's a good chance you will see an appeal to help the residents of Bhopal in India.

The 1984 Bhopal incident continues to haunt the chemical industry, and the timeline highlights how the industry has been blighted by a long list of industrial accidents. Has the chemical industry learned from them? And how can future disasters be prevented? Certainly, companies were quick to react to Bhopal, with the creation of a major safety programme by the US Chemical Manufacturers' Association, designated Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER) just a few months later. This grew after 1998 into the international Responsible Care programme.

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Seveso, meanwhile, prompted the adoption in 1982 of the Seveso Directive in the EU. In light of Bhopal and the Rhine pollution incident, the directive was amended in 1987 and 1988, and, in 1996, Seveso II fully replaced its predecessor. This was again amended in 2003 because of industrial accidents such as the 2001 blast in Toulouse, France.

Safer design

In the UK, the Flixborough explosion led to the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974, when the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was also set up.

Safety guru Trevor Kletz says that avoiding hazards, rather than controlling them, through advances such as inherently safer design, is an important step forward. He adds that there has been a "tremendous improvement" in plant safety levels.

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But, he says, the lack of human knowledge of what has happened in the past is one of the biggest problems. "At a typical plant, there are very few people doing the same job they were 10 years ago. Once an individual has blown something up he won't do it again - but he moves on and he takes his memory with him."

Organisations are left with no memory says Kletz, but adds there is no reason why they can't in today's world.

Still, this memory problem, combined with rapid production growth, has inevitably led to industrial accidents in countries such as China and India.

Last year, saw 20 people killed at a ­fluorochemical in Jiangzu province, China. But the most publicised Chinese incident was the explosion at Jilin Petrochemical's aniline plant. Investigators concluded that the operation had had no effective contingency plans for accidents, and that Jilin environment officials had failed to report the potential water pollution risks accurately.

In July, China's environmental watchdog, SEPA, said that 45% of the 7,555 plants it had surveyed were sources of serious environmental risk 81% of the total were located along rivers or in densely populated areas.

Many western companies apply their own safety standards when they set up in developing nations, but, this is not ­obligatory if the local standards are below western ones.

Meanwhile, has Europe managed to clean up its act? October 2006 saw the 20-year anniversary of the Rhine spillage. The incident led to tighter environmental regulations throughout Europe, including the installation of containment basins for run-off water, and the improvement in fire protection at agrochemical warehouses.

Water protection measures

The VCI, Germany's chemical association, claims that since 1986, its members have spent €4.6bn ($5.7bn) on water-­protection measures, not including a cumulative €24bn in equipment operating costs. Discharges of heavy metals from German chemical producers have fallen by at least 70%.

However, there were serious concerns expressed last year by the HSE abut the level of major incidents in recent years at UK chemical plants and other installations involving hazardous materials.

A major incident is expected once every three years, yet there have been four such events since 2000 - at BP in Grangemouth (2000), ConocoPhillips on Humberside (2001), the Buncefield storage depot fire (2005) and, recently, Terra Nitrogen's ammonia plant explosion in Billingham. Last month, 37 people were injured following a leak at BASF's hexamethylene diamine plant at Teesside.

Kletz says that the lack of memory in an organisation can lead to similar accidents being repeated - he points out that the explosions at Flixborough and Bhopal were so devastating because of the amount of material kept in storage.

He believes further improvements could be made by looking at how and where data on accidents are stored. "There is a tremendous amount of information scattered around on accidents that have happened. One of the major challenges is finding better methods of retrieving the information that is there," says Kletz. He suggests a kind of global database where all information is stored on hazardous materials, which highlights the risks of each when the name is typed into a system.

It makes sense that global information will help prevent future incidents.

On paper, at least, there are laws in place in developing countries to protect the ­environment and promote plant safety.

But the worry has to be that in the race for economic reform, heath, safety and environment issues may be overlooked and the industry will experience another tragic wake-up call.


1 June 2006 - An explosion at Terra Nitrogen's Billingham plant in the UK injures two workers.

13 November 2005 - Explosions at Jilin Petrochemical's aniline plant in China, which killed five workers, resulted in the leakage of 100 tonnes of aniline, benzene and nitrobenzene into the 1,850km Songhua river, a main water source to millions.

23 March 2005 - Explosion and fire hits BP's Texas City refinery, killing 15 contract workers and injuring more than 170 people. BP attributed the explosion to a series of mistakes by its personnel before and during the start-up of an isomerisation process unit.

25 February 2005 - Petrochemical plant of Jiangsu Tianyin Chemical Industry in Jiangsu province, eastern China, suffers an explosion that kills five and injures 11 workers.

1 September 2004 - An ethylene unit at Sasol's synthetic fuel facility at Secunda, South Africa, is hit by an explosion that kills 10 workers.

14 October 2003 - An explosion at the Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertilisers nitrophosphate production complex at Narmadanagar, India, kills five workers and injures 30 others.

21 September 2001 - An explosion in a storage hangar in which 300 tonne of ammonium nitrate granules were stored for recycling at Atofina's Grande Paroisse fertilizer plant in Toulouse in southwest France kills 30 people and injures 200 more.

1 November 1986 - More than 1,000 tonnes of mostly agrochemicals were washed into Germany's Rhine river as firefighters extinguished a warehouse blaze at Novartis' predecessor, Sandoz, near Basle, Switzerland.

3 December 1984 - A leak of 27 tonnes of methyl isocyanate from Union Carbide India's Bhopal pesticides plant kills around 7,000 people and injures a further 20,000.

10 July 1976 - Several kilograms of dioxin leaked from the manufacturing plant of Roche affiliate Icmesa in Seveso, northern Italy, and spread over a wide area. Although there were no deaths, there were concerns for the long-term health of those affected.

1 June 1974 - Cyclohexane leak at Nypro UK's Flixborough, UK, plant caused an explosion which killed 28 workers and injured 36.


Cefic statistics for 2005 show that 17 people lost their lives in 2005, which is comparable with 2004, and a reduction on 2003. The lost-time injury-frequency rate (the number of accidents resulting in one day or more out of work per million hours worked) has reached its lowest rate ever this year. The number of road transport accidents stood at 1.1 per million tonnes of material transported - up on the previous year but lower than the 2001 baseline year. The incident rate for rail transport was 0.21 incidents per one million tonnes transported, which is 50% lower than the baseline year.

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