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4 Major Accidents in the 21st Century – Why is Process Safety Important?

Across the world, economies are waking up from forced slumber, induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. This has caused many to be sluggish in their response whether it’s in the factory, plants, or oil platforms and rigs; leading to several disasters in 2020. This has exposed many of the public and organisations to the significance of Process Safety Management.

Have we not learned from the world’s worst catastrophes in the chemical industry that resulted in a death toll of 3,787 lives? Here are some of the major accidents in the past year.

Visakhapatnam, India – Chemical Plant Leak
7 May 2020

In the early twilight, villagers in the coastal city of Visakhapatnam woke up in a chaotic daze when an unfamiliar smell hung in the air. Within hours, the styrene monomer gas leak covered a radius of about 3 KM, affecting the surrounding villages and their livelihood. In this major accident, a total of 12 lives were lost and 1,000 injuries reported.

In a post-mortem report, it was found that the formation of the deadly vapour was a result of a polymerisation reaction, caused by personnel negligence and lack of a monitoring system.

Incheon, South Korea – Chemical Tanker Explosion
21 July 2020

A chemical tanker explosion killed one worker and injured seven others in Incheon City, South Korea on 21 July. The blast occurred after the tanker exploded at a chemical factory while hydrogen peroxide was being loaded into the vehicle. The powerful explosion did not set the area ablaze but did cause sizeable damage to parts of the building as well as nearby factories.

A joint investigation was conducted between the police and fire authorities, although the exact cause is still unknown.

Beirut, Lebanon – Warehouse Explosion
4 August 2020

The murky episode on Lebanese docks began when one MV Rhosus arrived, carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. After inspection, the Rhosus was banned from leaving and shortly abandoned by its owners. The cargo was then transferred to Warehouse 12, and stored in precarious conditions. When stored in proper conditions, the crystal-like white solid is relatively harmless. However, the large amount of decaying material began to decay, solidifying the powder.

Combining ammonium nitrate with fuel oils is known to create explosives used in the mining and construction industries. The blast claimed over 200 lives, with many bodies missing, and over 6,500 people injured. The explosion was caused by improper storage of the ammonium nitrate within the storehouse, as well as negligence and mismanagement by authorities.

This major accident that shook the whole world occurred in the Port of Beirut, Lebanon. The blast, according to researchers, was equivalent to 1,155 tonnes of TNT. It detonated the immediate dockside area, leaving a crater of 140 meters wide.

West Java, Indonesia – Oil Refinery
29 March 2021

The explosion at the Balongan refinery shook Indonesians in the West Java region, 200 KM east of the Jakartan capital. Opened in the mid-90s, the refinery’s capacity is about 125,000 barrels of oil a day.

The explosion quickly turned into a raging inferno, engulfing Pertamina’s sprawling complex. A local resident recalled how the blast early in the morning woke him up, and the only sight he saw was a plume of towering black smoke.

At least five individuals were seriously injured and about 1,000 residents had to be evacuated as the fire quickly spread from storage tanks to other containers. While the cause of the fire was unclear, the refinery was ablaze during a lightning storm.

A call for an investigation was issued by Greenpeace, stating that there has been an uptick of similar incidents in the oil and gas industry.

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Why is Process Safety Management vital in the industry?

As our population continues to grow, public tolerance for major accidents has reduced drastically. This is where PSM comes into play; to manage the safety of all the employees, the surrounding public and the environment. PSM prevents catastrophic events by evaluating different elements that comprise the process safety scope.

The elements evaluated under the OSHA regulation can be broken down into 14 different elements under this table.

Compliance Audits Training
Contractors Hot Work
Process Safety Information Process Hazard Analysis
Mechanical Integrity Operating Procedures
Incident Investigation Management of Change
Employee Participation Trade Secrets
Pre-Startup Safety Review Emergency Planning and Response

Major disasters occurring over the bulk of 2020 prove there we still have a long way to go when it comes to Process Safety Management. It begs not the question of if there are PSM systems implemented, but how effectively a PSM discipline is implemented into one’s company.

So how does a temporary lapse in judgment lead to major accidents in Process Safety history? Rarely it’s one large incident in the process. Rather, it’s the buildup of overlooked errors that had snowballed into a major event. This can be explained by the ‘Swiss Cheese’ model.

The ‘Swiss Cheese’ model proposed by James Reason is now widely used by those within the industry. When industries are more focused on Occupational Safety and Health practices, as compared to Process Safety Management, it leaves room for numerous failures, some of which include asset integrity and reliability failure, weak process safety culture and other failures of procedures.

Analytical Insights

According to Abu Bakar H. T., et. al. (2017), the US implements the highest number of safety elements in their Safety Process, followed by Europe, Japan, Singapore and finally Malaysia (Table 1).

While some of the company from another section of the world are trying to implement PSM based on their corporate requirement, PSM awareness amongst local industries still have a long way to go. Lack of process hazard analysis (PHA) implementation in the chemical process industry (CPI) contributes to the highest ranking in PSM element failure, which may then lead to major accidents.

For a comprehensive assessment of your projects, you may get in touch with our experienced engineers here.

Abu Bakar H.T., et. al. (2017)

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