Chinese Factory Explosions Underscore Need for Attention to Safety Regulations
The chemical explosions in the Chinese city of Tianjin on the night of August 12, 2015, killed more than 150 people, injured many others, and caused terrible destruction around the explosion site, including what many fear will be continued effects from contamination.
While the actual physical cause of the explosion has yet to be determined, authorities are blaming lax oversight of company officials for the destruction.
According to a report by CNN, the Chinese government requires that facilities with more than 550 square meters, which handle and store dangerous chemicals, must be at least one kilometer away from public buildings and facilities. It appears that this regulation was not enforced. Sodium cyanide was among the extremely toxic chemicals being stored in the exploded warehouses, which can be lethal in even very small doses.
This accident is the most recent of many industrial explosions in fast-growing China. However it is important to note that these types of accidents can occur anywhere.
Examples of U.S. Accidents Due to Safety Oversight
Although it may be comforting to tell ourselves that such terrible disasters aren’t likely in the United States, we are not immune to accidents that could have been prevented by vigilant attention to safety regulations and procedures.
West Fertilizer Plant Explosion, 2013
An ammonium nitrate explosion at the West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility in West, Texas killed 15 people and injured more than 160. The explosion was created by a fire whose cause is yet unknown, but in 2014, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s preliminary results of its investigation found that company officials failed to prevent the fire and safely store its chemicals.
Here’s part of a statement released by the board’s chair, Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso:
“The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.”
Williams Olefins Plant Explosion, 2013
An explosion at a petrochemical plant located about 20 miles away from Baton Rouge, Louisiana killed two workers and injured 114. Later that year, the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration cited the company for several violations, including one willful violation (which is a violation “committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirements, or with plain indifference to worker safety and health”).
The willful violation was cited for “failing to develop clear, written procedures for how to change and put idle pressure vessels into service.” Other violations included failure to document workplace training, failure to quickly correct problems with the process safety management procedure, and inadvertent mixing of chemicals.
West Pharmaceutical Services Explosion, 2003
An explosion at the West Pharmaceutical Plant in Kinston, North Carolina, killed 6 and injured dozens. The final report from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board was very critical of West Pharmaceutical Services, noting that good safety practices would have likely prevented the tragedy. Among the criticisms were the company’s “inadequate engineering assessment for combustible powders, inadequate consultation with fire safety standards, lack of appropriate review of material safety data sheets (SDS’s), and inadequate communication of dust hazards to workers.”
The Chinese government has promised to review and enforce safety standards across the country in response to the Tianjin blast. The community is still struggling to recover from the losses of the disaster and coping with the toxic after-effects of the explosion. We hope that this tragedy serves as a reminder to all of us in manufacturing, no matter which country we live or work in, to carefully review and adhere to all safety procedures.
Photo credit: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann / CC BY 2.0