Understanding the risk and opportunity of chemical production: discussing the recent La Canonja chemical accident and other examples
Chemicals have two defining characteristics: they are central to the modern world, and they are hugely dangerous in the event of an accident.
If you are reading this blog, then the chemical industry has probably contributed to the device on which you are reading it, the last cup of coffee you drank and the clothes you are wearing. Over 70,000 products come from the $3 trillion chemical industry including plastics, polymers, fuels, medicines, and metals, and it supports agriculture, manufacturing and construction.
But feeding and clothing the human race and providing all the things that we need comes at a price.
The explosion on the SS Grandcamp in Texas City harbour in 1947, when super-heated ammonium nitrate ruptured the ship’s fuel and oil tanks, killed 500-600 people directly, including 27 front-line fire-fighters, and injured thousands more.
The Bhopal methyl isocyanate chemical leak in India in 1984 killed 3000 people and permanently disabled a further 102,000 and contaminated the local water supply for years afterwards because Union Carbide did not clean the site after they closed it.
And here is the latest contender; within the last week an explosion at a chemical plant in Spain’s autonomous Catalonia region which houses a major chemical industry has seen one person killed and another eight injured.
Update 17/01/20 – another worker later died from their injuries and a 3rd related death was reported 3km away due to flying debris from the explosion.
An initial report by Reuters states that a potential “chemical accident” triggered the explosion at the Industrias Químicas del Óxido de Etileno plant happened in La Canonja municipality. Black smoke billowed above the factory in Tarragona sparking fears of the potential release of toxic gases into the atmosphere resulting in a “toxic cloud”, with authorities initially urging residents to stay indoors. (Although they did say later that no toxic substances had been released).
This incident consumed local emergency, aviation and train services and caused the closure of vital routes in and out of the region. An emergency response had been activated and national coordinators were engaging with regional managers to ensure the necessary support was in place to deal with the ongoing incident. No doubt questions will be asked, and governing bodies will examine company response plans checking that all was followed and carried out to the letter, hoping that insurance policies will provide for the company, local businesses and families who have suffered.
Given the dangers of fires and explosions at chemical plants, the importance of safe procedures and well-rehearsed Business Continuity Plans cannot be overstated. We need to constantly remind ourselves to validate and challenge, Risk Assessments, Business Impact Assessments and BCP which are all mandated and vital to the continuity of business here in the UK, are they “fit for purpose”. When was the last time your organisation checked the BC Plan or updated the Risk Register? Are they still current, how often is the BCP tested, does everyone know what to do when it all goes wrong?
The unfortunate incident in Spain is one of many reoccurring themes within the chemical and pharma industry. In 2018 India’s largest Pharma producer Sun Pharma suffered a setback with a major fire, yet the senior management refused to condemn it. A statement later read “The company, which is investigating the incident with police, pointed out that there was no loss in production. It said the fire will not affect Sun’s operations and so it is not a “material event.” The phrase “a non-material event” could be described as a precautionary measure against the damage of reputation, revenue and incoming challenges of a regulatory body.
The dumbing down and title description of an “incident” (which is different from an “accident” where someone is judged to be blameworthy) is a pure-play on words and could be seen as an attempt by those in charge to avoid censure.
But direction, responsibility and ownership of safety and Business Continuity sits within senior management, and the realisation for the need to change the industry culture if and when required is their centre of gravity. No matter what has gone before, they need to be “Champions and Advocates” of BC and seek assistance from professional BC and Change Manager specialists.
Within the UK, the industry regulatory bodies have a tight hold of processes and policy but in the event of an incident, industry needs to be forward-looking as well as reactive and ensure the safety of its employees and continuity of business. Business as Usual (BAU) needs to incorporate the use of coherent BC planning as its own form of “insurance policy” so that in the event of a major disruptive event occurring, both response and recovery are as effective and efficient as possible. Even better, the Business Continuity Management System provides the opportunity to identify risks, conduct a thorough assessment and consider the value of mitigation strategies.
Whist all our thoughts and wishes at Inverroy are with the families of those who have suffered loss and injury in Spain and further afield this week, the ongoing theme of global industrial explosions and rampaging fires in Australia, are taking their toll on the population and environment.
All these competing issues beg questions such as “what else can be done to prevent and prepare for a measured response to significant incidents such as these? Could we as a body of “Crisis Management” experts contribute and co-operate more with industry leaders?
As BC professionals we and industry have a duty of care to engage and collaborate ensuring the safeguard of our “People, Property and the ongoing battle to protect our environment”. Nobody wants or needs to be the person answering to a criminal court or a bereaved family explaining why there was no plan in place that protected the company’s greatest assets and the innocent by-standing population.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
STU WALLACE, SENIOR CONSULTANT