There are various potentially dangerous materials and processes employed in the chemical sector. Aside from the immediate implications surrounding a major incident, such as loss of life, a threat to the environment, or the destruction of plants and surrounding buildings, the damage to the industry’s reputation is almost irrevocable.
The safe storage of chemicals is an essential part of a health, environmental, and safety program. The chemical storage facilities must meet minimum standards to satisfy diverse regulations.
Adept chemical storage facilities account for large quantities of hazardous chemicals that are manufactured daily and transported. The most common means of transportation are ships, in addition to road and rail routes. The cargoes are unloaded and kept in marshaling yards or warehouses temporarily. Most of the accidents occur in these port areas where enormous quantities of chemicals are stored. The accidents can have extensive consequences for both humans and the environment. Around 54.8% of transportation accidents have occurred near seaports in the last 60 years. Also, their proximity to population centers leads to an increased number of fatalities and injuries. Waterfront facilities involved in the marine transfer of chemicals are governed by specific regulations imposing appropriate safety measures. Prediction and consequence assessment of accidents is not easy due to the uncertainty of the amount and nature of chemicals present. However, typical scenarios of possible accidents can be developed by considering the maximum amount of chemicals arriving at a location.
Past explosion incidents
On 4 August 2020, Beirut, the capital of Lebanon witnessed the largest explosion recorded in modern history. A cache of around 2750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate precariously stored ignited and set off a massive blast. The blast destroyed the ancient city and reopened old wounds for a fragile population. The country was already facing an ongoing socio-economic crisis, civil unrest, and the COVID- 19 pandemics. The Beirut blast resulted in more than 200 fatalities, over 7,000 injuries, and 300,000 homeless people. The explosion severely damaged critical health infrastructure and medical supplies.
The blast occurred due to an enormous quantity of ammonium nitrate stored for over six years in a warehouse at the Beirut port. The huge tremor causing the blast was preceded by fire, possibly due to firecrackers. Large quantities of stored ammonium nitrate can lead to a major fire hazard. There are two ways in which stored ammonium nitrate can explode. The first is by an initiation because the storage may encounter an explosive mixture. The second way could be due to a fire in the storage area because of the heat generated as a result of the oxidation process.
The blast put the people of Lebanon in an extremely vulnerable situation. Currently, over 3.5 million people are below the poverty line in the country. They have been living in a situation of mass unemployment and food insecurity. As per the International Rescue Committee, the rates of COVID- 19 infections increased by 220% after the explosion. As per research by Lebanese officials, the total cost of the blast was reported at USD 15 billion. The World Bank Group estimated the infrastructure recovery cost to be around USD 3.8-4.6 billion.
A series of explosions devastated the port city of Tianjin, China on 12 August 2015. The explosions occurred at a container storage station at the city port. More than 40 types of hazardous chemicals were present at the blast location. These chemicals included sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate, and sodium cyanide. The complex and highly toxic chemicals complicated the explosions to the condition of the injured patients.
The series of explosions killed nearly 173 people and injured more than 700. Multidimensional injuries affecting almost every organ system were observed in these patients. Around 6.7% of the patients were diagnosed with an inhalation injury and 2.7% were diagnosed with chemical poisoning.
Safe chemical handling required regular inspections of chemical storage areas. All storage cabinets and areas should be inspected annually. Any unwanted or expired chemicals must be removed. The inherent hazards of a chemical can be reduced by stringent inventory control. Safe storage begins with an up-to-date inventory of hazardous chemicals that can be used to apprise personnel of the dangers in a laboratory, shop, or work area. An accurate inventory is also necessary if emergency responders are to respond effectively to a fire or chemical release in the area. Typical storage considerations include ignition control, temperature, ventilation, and identification. Proper segregation is essential to prevent incompatible materials from coming in contact. Proper storage information can be obtained from the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), label, or other chemical reference material. To keep facilities safe, it is not possible to rely on government associations to spot problems before they happen. It is up to the safety managers, frontline workers, and plant managers to implement smart tools to keep the factories safe.