Process Safety Systems How to Maintain a Process Safety System

Author / Editor: P. Vijayaraghavan / Dominik Stephan

The Bhopal disaster, in which hundreds of thousands of people were unknowingly affected by a gas leak outside the factory premises, has become a learning lesson. Chemical and petrochemical industries today have become more conscious about keeping a process safety system in place.

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(Picture: PROCESS)

Albert Einstein once said “The concern for man himself and his safety must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.” People remembered his discoveries, but probably forgot his fears. Sadly, it took an incident like the Bhopal disaster and thousands of lives, for engineering professional experts to realize that a ‘change’ was required...

Even today, the catastrophe of 1984 is widely recognized as one of the world’s worst industrial catastrophes ever: Water ingress into a storage tank for methyl isocyanate caused a massive chemical reaction and consequent over-pressurization and release of isocyanatomethane gas and other toxic chemicals from the plant. Several thousand residents of a nearby city were killed and up to hundreds of thousands suffered from long-term consequences. Officials reports and investigations showed that basic safety measures had been neglected to cut costs at the loss making site.

Had there been a process safety management system in place, this event and its dramatic outcomes could have been most certainly prevented. Alarmingly, many similar chemical incidents have occurred since then, raising a poignant question — have we really learnt our lesson from Bhopal? Are we sure such accidents will never ever happen again? The answer is yes and no.

Lets take a closer look at industrial safety in India, as it was here that Bhopal changed the way we look at process safety forever: Primarily, safety in manufacturing industries was regulated through the Indian Factories Act of 1948 — the major Indian law that dealt mainly with worker welfare and health. First enacted in 1881, the law underwent a series of amendments that essentially reflected UK legislation. The Act was amended in 1987 to establish safeguards for the use of hazardous substances in production facilities.

Ever since, these set of laws and regulations have been kept getting updated and amended to include other aspects (such as the environment, pollution levels and public liability). Even though the system is yet to be perfected, it is definitely a step in the right direction. However, the effectiveness of such regulatory and legal efforts largely depends on the implementation and enforcement of its statutes.