‘Big Bangs’ and lessons
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,