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Chemical Disasters: Prevention and Response

"The Indian chemical industry through its performance and potential has contributed to 2.11 per cent of the country’s GDP with 10.49 billion dollars as FDI in the last five years. It is estimated that the Indian chemical industry would grow at 11 per cent per annum to USD 154 billion by 2020. However, major chemical disasters disrupt its growth and it is preventable. Chemical disasters may arise at any stage of the plant/process life cycle such as commissioning, storage, manufacturing, maintenance, disposal and transportation etc. The loss of contaminant of hazardously chemicals can lead to fire, explosions, toxic release or combination of them. At a time when the population density is high and more and more residential colonies are brewing up around the industries, a major mishap at a chemical plant can spill catastrophe to the people and environment. Besides fire and explosion hazard, the release of toxic chemicals can cause irreparable damage that can last long to people as well as to the environment. One of the major drawbacks in India as compared to West is the non-availability of accident investigation agency and exclusive chemical accident data base which will be useful to learn lessons from the past and investigate the root causes of accidents and prevent its recurrence. Chemical disasters usually result due to failures of many critical factors and it is essential to understand which critical factors ultimately led to the disaster and which did not. The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) is the nodal Ministry for the management of chemical disasters and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has prepared guidelines to direct ministries, department and state authorities for the preparation of disaster management plans. Since the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 there has been a paradigm shift in the government’s approach to safety in industries from a reactive to proactive safety culture. The objective of this article is to let the readers understand the factors that cause chemical disaster, how it can be prevented and the actions that are needed to be taken if a chemical disaster were to take place. Causative Factors Ageing of process plants and inadequate steps to pace with modern technologies in Indian chemical industry has increased vulnerability to chemical disasters. Fire, explosion, toxic release and combinations of all can occur during transport, storage and processing due to number of reasons such as temperature and pressure deviations from set limits (process deviations), runaway reactions, mixing of incompatible materials, catastrophic rupture of reactors, storage vessels, pipelines, leaks, failure of hardware systems, inadequate mixing or agitation failures, improper design of reactor vents, inadequate process hazard analysis etc. Organic solvents are the most common source of fires and explosions in the chemical industry. The major distinction between fires and explosions is the rate of energy release. Fires release energy slowly, and explosions release energy rapidly, typically in the order of microseconds. Fires can also result from explosions and explosions can result from fires. The severity of the explosions is dependent on the moving pressure or shock wave and can be classified either as detonation or deflagration. Confined explosions cause injury to the building inhabitants and results in heavy damage, while unconfined explosions are usually the results of loss of containment of a flammable gas or liquid, which can disperse in air and explodes when it gets contact with an ignition source, therefore it has the potential to cause damage away from the source of release and is called as unconfined vapour cloud explosions (UCVE). Solid chemical dusts when in contact with ignition sources can result into dust explosions, again releasing large amounts of energy. Often, fires and explosions are accompanied by toxic release to the environment. Loss of containment of non-flammable gases, liquids and dusts can contribute to toxic load to the environment. A majority of the industrial accidents occur due to human error as a result of non-compliance of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that have been put into place by the company. Piper alpha accident is a classical example of how human error can lead to chemical disasters, wherein a worker accidentally activated a pump under maintenance without safety valve in place that lead to gas leak and subsequent explosion. Chemical disasters have also occurred due to defects in design; absence of SOP’s to mitigate an early warning in the process, poor coordination between different departments within the chemical company. In addition to the above there is an increased threat due to terrorist activities and sabotages. Natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes have also caused a major disaster in chemical industry. Another common cause that results in chemical disaster is the improper maintenance of equipment. Regular maintenance at scheduled intervals following the manufacturer’s recommendations is important for ensuring that the equipment runs smoothly and safely. When a piece of equipment is not properly maintained, it can malfunction and ultimately fail resulting in a catastrophic explosion. The Flixborough incident is a prime example of improper maintenance which lead to the death of 28 people and injured many. Non-availability of an emergency response team to mitigate accidents during the transportation of hazardous chemicals has also resulted in major disasters in several locations in India. Hazardous waste processing and its proper disposal needs special attention as these activities can also contribute to fire, explosions and toxic releases to the environment. Prevention and Response
  1. Role of Industry:
As far as chemical accidents are concerned, prevention is the best proactive approach rather than the reactive methods to chemical disasters. Each of the following stakeholders has a role and responsibility.
  1. Identification of hazardous activities
A good knowledge about the safety aspects of the industrial operations would enable the prevention and control of accidents. A knowledgeable and dedicated team of qualified professionals to evaluate the hazards and risks arising from the day to day activities is essential.
  1. Maintenance of the plant facility and equipment
Proper maintenance of all the equipment and machinery need to be carried out at regular intervals. Regular site safety and health inspection needs to be carried out to ensure that the plant facility is safe and all the equipment’s are operating in the intended method.
  1. Installation of vapor/gas detection system
Installation of gas/vapour detection system with alarms to detect leak even at micro levels would ensure early detection of leaks.
  1. Compliance with existing rules and regulations
Various rules and regulations of the state and centre should be strictly adhered for a sustainable and safe process.
  1. Development of human resource management
Human resource management is complex and requires a constant monitoring and behavior based safety program should be implemented. A good human resource management must be setup by the industry comprising of the top most officials to improve the safety systems in the chemical industry.   A congenial environment to be created for smooth interaction between the top management and the employees so that the workers could report substandard practices or hazards in the plant.
  1. Emergency preparedness
The industry must have a good emergency response team that can react swiftly to mitigate propagating disasters. Frequent mock drills need to be conducted so that workers are adequately knowledgeable to react to emergency.
  1. Role of Government
  2. Setting up of accident investigation board and chemical accident database
An accident investigation board on similar lines of chemical safety board of USA can be set up in India to investigate the chemical disaster and bring out guidelines based on the lessons learnt in each incident would be helpful to prevent its reoccurrence. Similar initiatives are required in setting up accident reporting system and exclusive chemical accident case database. An online portal would help industries tackle a wide range of concerns from experts around the world that would help in preventing of any unforeseen conditions arising out of the plant operation.
  1. Awareness Campaigns
The government can provide awareness regarding the hazards arising arise out a chemical disaster to the workers as well as the public. A good knowledge about the hazards by the workers themselves would help in reducing unsafe acts as well as in tackling the disaster if it were to happen.
  1. Research and Development
Research and development initiative to newer technologies that can minimize the toxicity of the by-products of chemical industries can be carried out by the government. Research in to newer methods of producing the product with less toxicity can substantially reduce the adverse effect if any accident were to happen.
  1. Offsite Emergency Planning
The purpose of offsite emergency plan is to ensure that the local authority adequately discharges his duty to minimize the consequences of major accident to people and environment in MAH located sites. This planning exercise should be performed as per our rule and regulations. Creating public awareness bout the hazards and its consequences is utmost important so that they can contribute in mitigating and post-disaster activities.
  1. Transportation of Hazardous Chemicals
Swift and timely availability of emergency response for disaster during transportation of hazardous chemical will help in mitigating and rescue the public involved. Recently Indian Chemical Council (ICC) has initiated a program called “Nicerglobe” ( which provide GPRS tracking of trucks right form its origin to the place of destination. The Nicerglobe platform is well linked to the emergency response providers. Chemical companies are advised to join in this initiative of ICC to protect their hazards goods transportation.
  1. Role of Public
A general awareness of the risk associated with any chemical accident would help in reducing the outcome of the accident A mutual aid group can be setup to organize the general public in case of any disaster and provide training and awareness about the potential actions to be taken in case of any chemical leakage. Disaster is a rarity in the chemical industry, but negligence or misfortune can so easily result in devastating consequences. Aside form the immediate implications surrounding a major incident, such as loss of life, a threat to the environment to the destruction of plants and surrounding buildings, the damage to the industry’s reputation is almost irrevocable. The result of a chemical disaster has effects through generations of populations which are almost irreparable and the cost of that to the affected people is unimaginable.  "