25 Nov 2014

30th anniversary of the worlds worst industrial accident.

December 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the world’s worst industrial accident tragedy on record. Over 500,000 people were exposed to a poisonous gas cloud following a leak at the UCIL pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killing thousands and injuring hundreds of thousands more.

The cause of the disaster remains under debate. The Indian government and local activists argue slack management and deferred maintenance created a situation where routine pipe maintenance caused a backflow of water into a MIC tank triggering the disaster. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) contends water entered the tank through an act of sabotage.

What cannot be questioned however are the lack of process safety management and/or lack of adequate maintenance or safety programmes throughout the site. UCC admitted in their own investigation report that most of the safety systems were not functioning on the night of 3 December 1984.

In September 1984, an internal UCC report on the Virginia plant in the USA revealed a number of defects and malfunctions. It warned that "a runaway reaction could occur in the MIC unit storage tanks, and that the planned response would not be timely or effective enough to prevent catastrophic failure of the tanks". This report was never forwarded to the Bhopal plant, although the main design was the same.

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) has released a free download in remembrance of the tragedy which can be downloaded here:

This document focuses on what went wrong, the impact of the disaster and the lessons learnt as a result.

We have come a long way since that fateful day, thirty years ago. Safety has been designed into plant and processes to help make industry inherently safer.

Interestingly, this year is also the 40th anniversary since the Health and Safety at Work Act received Royal Assent, protecting millions of British workers, and driving sharp reductions in incidents of occupational death, serious injury and ill health.

Incidents like that of Bhopal remain stark reminders that we can never afford to relax our focus on safety in the workplace. We continue to read stories on the HSE website of fatalities and injuries on a daily basis, or of fines for flaunting safety regulations. We have come a long way in a relatively short time, but there is still much work to do.

The worry is that in austere times, safety may take a back seat as industry looks to cut costs; but when these cost-cutting measures take the life of a worker from their loved ones, then the need to remind employers of their responsibilities and the potential consequences of their actions hold increasing importance.

Ignoring a fault on equipment “because it is still working” or putting it off until it becomes inoperable is a short-sighted, inefficient and potentially dangerous course of action. What starts off as a minor problem can soon develop into a much more costly repair and ultimately terminal failure. What may have been a simple 30 minute repair could result in equipment being out of action for days or weeks, the cost of downtime being considerable.

Routine maintenance checks and a systematic approach to equipment inspections will help to keep equipment running efficiently and safely. The Good to Go Safety system offers a simple but highly effective tagging and checklist system to ensure that critical safety checks are completed before the equipment is used. A documented audit trail provides management with invaluable evidence of their safety and management programmes in the event of an accident. The tag itself provides a visual reminder to carry out pre-use checks and will clearly indicate if and when a check has been completed by displaying its findings. For more information visit www.goodtogosafety.co.uk

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