‘Big Bangs’ and lessons

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

At least 170 peo­ple were killed and nearly 800 in­jured by two ex­plo­sions sec­onds apart at the Tian­jin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai In­ter­na­tional Lo­gis­tics Com­pany’s chem­i­cals ware­house in the port city of Tian­jin some 150km from Bei­jing on Au­gust 13. Wide­spread prop­erty dam­age oc­curred over a 1km ra­dius and thou­sands of peo­ple were evac­u­ated. One thou­sand fire­fight­ers and more than 140 fire ten­ders were de­ployed to tackle the sub­se­quent blaze which went on for nearly 24 hours. A team of over 200 chem­i­cal haz­ard spe­cial­ists was despatched by the gov­ern­ment from Bei­jing to as­sist in min­i­miz­ing any con­se­quent safety, health and en­vi­ron­men­tal risks.

Another ex­plo­sion and fire oc­curred on Au­gust 22 at the Runx­ing chem­i­cal fac­tory in Zibo City, Shan­dong Province, 300km south of Bei­jing. In this blast, one per­son was killed and 9 in­jured. Ap­par­ently, the ex­plo­sion and fire started at a separa­tor unit in the pro­duc­tion process. Blast dam­age and ef­fects were ex­pe­ri­enced up to 2km away.

Re­gret­tably, man-made safety dis­as­ters are all too fre­quent in China. One of the most no­table for its scale and ram­i­fi­ca­tions was the ex­plo­sion and fire at the PetroChina petro­chem­i­cal plant in Jilin City in 2005. Six peo­ple were killed at the site and 70 more were in­jured. Some 10,000 peo­ple in the vicin­ity were evac­u­ated. The ini­tial dis­as­ter then es­ca­lated into one of the world’s worst ever en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters as chem­i­cals from the site poured out into wa­ter cour­ses. Large quan­ti­ties of toxic sub­stances such as ben­zene and ni­troben­zene were washed into the Songhua River and were car­ried across the whole of Jilin Province and then Hei­longjiang Province head­ing for Harbin and the Amur River. An 80km long pol­lu­tion slick car­ried across the bor­der into Rus­sia reach­ing Khabarovsk and even­tu­ally the Pa­cific Ocean.

At the time, I was ad­vis­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Work Safety, and aca­demics at Ts­inghua Univer­sity in Bei­jing, who were also ad­vis­ers on risk man­age­ment to the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters. It was ap­par­ent that China was still stuck in a dys­func­tional mode of think­ing on safety that had been preva­lent in the West be­fore the flurry of ma­jor haz­ard dis­as­ters of the 1970s and 1980s and the ad­vent in the EU and gen­er­ally of a pro-ac­tive reg­u­la­tory and pre­ven­ta­tive sys­tem based on ob­jec­tive risk as­sess­ment. Com­mon neg­a­tive themes in China’s in­dus­tries in­cluded: - Ma­jor haz­ard sites rou­tinely lo­cated in ur­ban ar­eas; - Residential im­pact and public safety rou­tinely side-lined or ig­nored; - Lack of ef­fec­tive reg­u­la­tory con­trol mech­a­nisms; - Ab­sence of a ’safety jus­ti­fi­ca­tion’ or ‘safety case’ sys­tem; - Over-re­liance on rou­tine tech­ni­cal in­spec­tion and pe­ri­odic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of hard­ware at the ex­pense of safety man­age­ment sys­tems, for­mal­ized ma­jor eval­u­a­tion, safety cases and safety cul­ture;

- Re­peated fail­ure to learn lessons from pre­vi­ous dis­as­ters and to im­ple­ment lessons that had been learned.

These themes were very rem­i­nis­cent of the ‘old ap­proach’ to ma­jor haz­ards in the West that the ‘ new ap­proach’ has largely re­placed e.g. the Con­trol of Ma­jor Haz­ards EU Di­rec­tives (Seveso I, II and III) and the EU Di­rec­tive on Safety of Off­shore Oil and Gas Oper­a­tions.



Nev­er­the­less, whereas the risk-based ap­proach de­vel­oped in the West since the mid-1980s has in­tro­duced a large de­gree of self-reg­u­lated safety dis­ci­pline and ap­plied knowl­edge in the ma­jor haz­ard in­dus­tries, and much of the rather cava­lier neg­a­tive safety at­ti­tudes has gone, the fact re­mains that dis­as­ters keep oc­cur­ring. Re­peat­edly, lessons from pre­vi­ous dis­as­ters are ei­ther not learned at all or, if they are, those lessons are not im­ple­mented.

There is no rea­son to sup­pose that the sit­u­a­tion in Cyprus is any dif­fer­ent. For ex­am­ple, to what ex­tent have the lessons from the 2011 Mari-Vas­si­likos ex­plo­sion and the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Polyviou Re­port been im­ple­mented? Now that the new Vas­si­likos Energy Com­plex is op­er­a­tional, what in­de­pen­dent ex­pert as­sur­ance do we have that ma­jor haz­ard risk con­trol there is ad­e­quate? Has public con­sul­ta­tion been real or per­func­tory? Are the Cyprus reg­u­la­tors and en­forc­ing author­i­ties up to scratch?

As I asked in a re­cent ar­ti­cle in 79 (2015), 254-267, why does there re­main such a large gap be­tween the ideal and re­al­ity when it comes to ma­jor haz­ard ac­ci­dent preven­tion? Why do boards and in­di­vid­ual di­rec­tors and ex­ec­u­tives so fre­quently ap­pear to defy ra­tio­nal com­mon­sense re­quire­ments (and in­deed statu­tory re­quire­ments and pro­fes­sional good prac­tice, in­clud­ing lessons learned) for safety risk man­age­ment in­tended ul­ti­mately (as a cor­po­rate gov­er­nance ob­jec­tive) to pro­tect the in­ter­ests of share­hold­ers and other stake­hold­ers such as em­ploy­ees and the public?

Of­fi­cial dis­as­ter in­quiry and in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­ports con­tinue to flow thick and fast (e.g. Bunce­field ga­so­line stor­age fire and ex­plo­sion 2005, BP Texas City re­fin­ery fire and ex­plo­sion 2005, BP Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon off­shore in­stal­la­tion 2010, Mari-Vas­si­likos dis­as­ter 2011, Fukushima Dai­ichi nu­clear re­ac­tor melt­down 2011). Com­mon crit­i­cal themes that emerge in­clude:

- Man­age­rial over-re­liance on rou­tine tech­ni­cal in­spec­tion and plant cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, - Weak and de­fec­tive safety man­age­ment sys­tems, - Weak safety cul­ture,

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