Preventing explosions in business

12 May 2017

Preventing explosions and disasters in business (or controlling little things to prevent big bangs)

I’ve been 4Sighting recently about the Buncefield disaster, when over 250,000 litres of fuel overflowed from a tank and caused a massive explosion.

While I was researching the events and the enquiry, what surprised me most was these 2 things:

  • No-one died
  • There were so many little things that weren't managed adequately, and putting any one of them right would have prevented the disaster.

I don't use the word 'disaster' lightly. Not only was it the biggest fire since world war 2 and burnt for 5 days, but it cost the companies responsible over £9 million in fines and costs. This would have been much higher now since new sentencing guidelines were introduced in March 2016.

It was a miracle no-one died but as the events happened early on a Sunday morning, there were very few people around. 40 people were injured though and the psychological scars take a long time to heal.

Going back to those 'little things':

  • There was a gauge which was known to be faulty (and contractors had been out 11 times in 4 months to fix it), so it didn't register the rising fuel level.
  • A valve and automatic switch was supposed to cut off the fuel pouring into the tank when it reached a critical level, but had been fitted with a vital part missing and so it was inoperable, meaning the fuel continued to flow.
  • There was a CCTV camera on the tank which overflowed, but the control room staff didn't check through the different screens on their monitor, and so didn't know the fuel was spilling.
  • A bund around the tank wasn’t explosion-proof, so when the vapour cloud from the leaking fuel went ‘kaboom’, the bund burst, causing the 250,000 litres to flow into the water lagoon (a reserve for fire-fighting), and into the ground causing a massive pollution problem.

Putting things right in the H&S world doesn't always have to be complicated or costly - often, putting small things in place and making small changes in working practices can dramatically lower your risk level.

It can also mean you prevent injuries to your employees and the public¹. And it can keep you safe from prosecution - if something does go wrong a mitigating factor is that you can show you've made an effort to control hazards.

¹Employers have a duty of care to employees under section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, and to non-employees under section 3.