Lessons Learned? Chemical Plant Safety since Bhopal

By Hood, Ernie | Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2004 | Go to article overview
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Lessons Learned? Chemical Plant Safety since Bhopal


Hood, Ernie, Environmental Health Perspectives


It was 3 December 1984, a quiet night in Bhopal, India, until a cascade of catastrophic circumstances, system failures, and outright negligence at the Union Carbide pesticide plant led to the accidental release of approximately 40 metric tons of acutely toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC). The dense cloud of deadly vapor spread over the sleeping community. Estimates of immediate and long-term casualties vary; the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), an independent federal agency, cites more than 3,000 people dying within a few days and at least 100,000 injured. The event is widely acknowledged to be the worst industrial accident in history, leaving as many as 50,000 people partially or totally disabled as of 1994, according to the International Medical Commission on Bhopal. The incident also left a morass of civil and criminal litigation in its wake, as survivors continue their effort to recover what they consider to be appropriate compensation for their long-term pain and suffering.

As the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal incident arrives later this year, there inevitably will be a renewed focus on its impact on safety within the chemical industry worldwide. "Bhopal was a wake-up call for the industry," says chemical engineer Sam Mannan, director of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University, echoing the opinion of many experts in the field. Although it seems clear that Bhopal has had a positive legacy in improved chemical plant safety, particularly in the United States, to this day there is no single, reliable, quantifiable method to answer a very simple, reasonable, and vitally important question: How safe are chemical plants today, and are they really any safer today than they were 20 years ago?

"I wish somebody had a good solid finger on the pulse of chemical safety, but we really don't have that in [the United States] right now," says CSB toxicologist Gerald Poje. Mannan concurs: "It's really impossible to answer the question 'Are we doing better or worse?' without having data, without having statistics." Of that lack of data, he says, "I won't hesitate to use the word 'scandalous,' because it is."

The Advent of Process Safety

Despite the lack of a definitive, rigorous assessment of chemical safety in the United States, tremendous strides have been made over the past 20 years in culture, practices, and attitudes in the chemical-handling community, as well as in the regulatory environment that governs the industry. If Bhopal was a wake-up call, the call for ongoing improvement in chemical safety has been answered in numerous ways by the industry and many other stakeholders. Disparate groups with diverse agendas are increasingly finding ways to work together in a spirit of cooperation to reduce or prevent accidents, and to enhance the protection of personnel and the public alike.

Perhaps the most important development in those efforts has been the widespread adoption of a concept called process safety. Process safety is a comprehensive, systematic approach encompassing the proactive identification, evaluation, and mitigation or prevention of chemical releases that could occur as a result of failures in process, procedures, or equipment. Although the idea had been in existence before Bhopal, it was the tragedy in India that brought about its complete acceptance as industry standard practice, formalized in 1985 with the creation of the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

The CCPS was founded by a group of chemical companies that recognized the need to establish a professional organization devoted to studying, supporting, and advancing process safety. The CCPS has evolved into a widely respected source of knowledge and expertise in the area. CCPS director Scott Berger says the center's status as a professional organization lets working on solutions remain the order of the day.

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