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published on

September 2023

The Lessons Learned from Industrial Disasters

The history of human innovation through industry, while remarkable, is not without its pitfalls. Occasionally, progress is marked not by the chiming bells of success but by the thunderous booms of catastrophe. Such is the nature of industrial explosions — devastating, tragic, yet imbued with powerful lessons for the future. These disasters, while heartbreaking, serve as stark reminders of the importance of employing a robust process of safety and risk management. In this blog post, we revisit some of the most significant explosion disasters in recent history. Our aim is not to dwell on their destruction but to understand their causes, measure their impact, and, most importantly, distill crucial insights that can guide our efforts in making these industries safer.

The Beirut Explosion of 2020

What Happened?

In 2020, the city of Beirut experienced a devastating explosion. On August 4, a warehouse at the city’s port that had been storing approximately 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire, which triggered an explosion so massive, it was heard hundreds of miles away. The catastrophic event led to over 200 deaths, thousands of injuries, and an estimated $10–$15 billion in damages, not to mention the displacement of approximately 300,000 residents.

Beirut explosion

What Was Learned?

The Beirut explosion underscores the need to understand the hazards. The ammonium nitrate had been held at the port for years, and the hazardous nature of its storage was already known due to other similar incidents that had occurred.

In essence, the Beirut explosion serves as a tragic reminder of the catastrophic consequences that can follow from a lack of hazard awareness and meticulously enforced safety procedures. In the aftermath, the poignant lesson revolves around enforcing strict safety protocols and regulatory compliance when managing such materials. Proactive risk assessment, timely disposal or usage of dangerous substances, and persistent oversight are crucial for preventing such disasters in the future.

The U.S. 23 Explosion

What Happened?

In March of 2022, a gas main was inadvertently struck as construction work was being done along U.S. 23 in Fenton, Michigan. The main ruptured, which led to a devastating explosion that significantly impacted the local area. The immediate vicinity of the blast suffered extensive damage, and the major roadways nearby were closed, disrupting local transportation and commerce. No lives were lost or severe injuries reported, which was incredibly fortunate due to the massive amount of debris that was ejected from the blast site, including broken sections of steel piping.

What Was Learned?

The explosion emphasized the potential for significant harm and disruption from flammable materials even outside of industrial facilities. The U.S. 23 explosion is a stark reminder of the need for meticulous planning and hazard assessment for the transportation of hazardous material, flammable or toxic, whether via pipeline, train, barge, or truck. The potential hazards should be evaluated before the pipeline installation and reduced to the extent practical with additional safety systems and determining routes to minimize public exposure. After installation, it remains critical to have comprehensive hazard awareness training for companies and personnel working in the vicinity of the pipeline to prevent such incidents in the future.

The Deepwater Horizon Explosion

What Happened?

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible drilling rig operating in the Macondo Prospect oil field in the Gulf of Mexico near Louisiana, experienced a deadly blowout. This devastating incident was caused by a surge of natural gas from the well the rig was drilling, which ignited, causing an explosion and, subsequently, the sinking of the rig.

The blast tragically claimed the lives of 11 workers and injured 17 others. Beyond the human toll, the incident resulted in the largest marine oil spill in history, spewing an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf over 87 days before the well was finally capped. The environmental impact was catastrophic, causing widespread damage to marine and wildlife habitats and severely affecting the area’s fishing and tourism industries.

Large free-floating oil rig in the middle of the ocean with mountains in the background

What Was Learned?

In retrospect, the Deepwater Horizon explosion was a classic case of systemic failure. As with many incidents, there was a multitude of errors and misjudgments that on their own would not have led to a catastrophic incident, but the combination of factors and failures all aligned, leading to one of the worst marine incidents in history.

The disaster underscores the crucial need for effective regulatory oversight and rigorous safety protocols and culture in the high-risk oil and gas industry. It also emphasizes the importance of planning for worst-case scenarios, ensuring that effective containment and response strategies are in place in the event of a disaster. Finally, it emphasizes the importance of a strong process safety management program and process safety culture throughout the organization and associated contractor organizations.

The Buncefield Explosion

What Happened?

The Buncefield explosion was a massive industrial accident that occurred in December 2005 at the Buncefield oil storage depot near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, England. The incident began when an overflow occurred during the fuel transfer process, leading to a large vapor cloud formation. When the cloud came into contact with an ignition source, a series of massive fuel-air explosions occurred.

The explosion was one of the largest in peacetime Europe. It injured 43 people and caused extensive damage to surrounding buildings and homes. The environmental impact was also considerable and resulted in air and water pollution that required substantial cleanup efforts.

What Was Learned?

The Buncefield explosion offers several crucial lessons for improving industrial safety. Investigations into the Buncefield explosion revealed the need for robust automated safety systems capable of preventing situations like overfilling. Assessing key safety systems already in place through a process hazard analysis using HAZOP and LOPA methodologies would have revealed a lack of sufficient safety measures, such as high-level safety switches and automated shutoff systems.

Investigations into the incident also emphasized the need for thorough emergency response plans that prepare for worst-case scenarios. Developing robust emergency response plans before an incident occurs can save precious moments at the onset of a loss of containment that can make the difference between minor damage and a major loss. In essence, the Buncefield explosion highlights that pre-incident planning and accurately assessing and ensuring adequate safeguards can be the difference between routine operations and significant industrial disasters.

The Texas City Refinery Explosion

What Happened?

In March of 2005, a devasting industrial accident occurred at the BP-operated refinery in Texas City, Texas. The incident began when a distillation tower was inadvertently overfilled during the start-up process. This resulted in a discharge of highly flammable hydrocarbon liquid and vapor that was then ignited, transforming the cloud into a series of explosions.

The disaster claimed 15 lives and injured over 180 people, making it one of the deadliest industrial accidents in recent U.S. history. The explosions caused substantial damage, not just to the refinery itself but also to the nearby trailers accommodating temporary workers, contributing to the high casualty count. The surrounding communities were also affected by the ensuing fires, the release of toxic fumes, and the subsequent economic impact on the region.

Industrial refinery with smokestacks and clouds in the background.

What Was Learned?

The Texas City Refinery explosion offers several vital lessons in adequate industrial safety and risk management. It emphasizes the importance of fostering a culture of safety that prioritizes the well-being of employees and highlights the necessity of continuous training, maintenance, and upgrades to equipment. One contributing factor identified from the event was inadequate safety training and awareness, as well as a lack of ownership of process safety management throughout the organization. Developing a strong process safety management program and regularly auditing the program is essential to maintaining a strong process safety culture. Another key lesson was to ensure that hazards are identified, understood, and mitigated appropriately. In this case, the location of weak, portable buildings was not adequately evaluated based on the nearby hazards. The industry took the opportunity to develop the API Recommended Practice 753 for hazard management of portable or temporary structures to ensure these types of buildings would be sited appropriately in the future.

Furthermore, it illustrates the importance of proactive risk management, including regular safety audits and immediate action on identified.

The Beijing Lithium Battery Explosion

What Happened?

On April 16, 2021, a fire broke out in the southern section of the Beijing Jimei Dahongmen power station. As firefighting teams worked to contain the blaze, a sudden explosion in the northern area occurred, tragically claiming the lives of two firefighters, injuring another, and leading to the disappearance of one power station staff member.

What Was Learned?

While preliminary investigations into the explosion were unable to definitively pinpoint the cause of the incident, experts were able to determine a few crucial contributing factors — notably, the intricate nature of and inherent risks associated with battery energy storage systems (BESS). BESS are a complex challenge to manage safely. Lithium-ion battery cells can release energy in the form of heat when faced with extreme conditions or abuse, which can cause failure in nearby cells and lead to a phenomenon known as “thermal runaway.” This process involves a chain reaction wherein the harm to adjacent cells leads to a rapid heating event, often causing fires that, even if managed and suppressed, can continue to escalate and potentially result in a catastrophic release of energy.

Experts believe the quality of the batteries might have contributed to an overload in one of the batteries at the power station, triggering the fire that ultimately caused the explosion. This, coupled with potential gaps in understanding system risks among staff members and operators, inadequate supervision, and poorly implemented safety standards, collectively contributed to the deadly event in Beijing.

This incident serves as a stark reminder of the critical importance of comprehending occupational risks. Battery energy storage systems are intricate and demand robust infrastructure to counteract thermal runaway effectively. Proper protocols for safely handling compromised energy cells must be in place, and thorough safety procedures regarding these systems must be communicated to everyone.

Conclusion

Industrial disasters serve as solemn reminders of the potential life and environmental costs of inadequate safety measures. Despite their diverse locations and causes, each incident listed above shares common threads: overlooked risks, inefficient safety systems, and neglect of established procedures. These disasters emphasize the critical importance of fostering a culture of safety that permeates every level of operation, prioritizing the well-being of employees and the environment above all else. They highlight the necessity for continuous training, regular maintenance, rigorous adherence to safety regulations, and immediate action on identified issues. Only by acknowledging and learning from these tragic lessons of the past can we hope to prevent such devastating incidents in the future.

BakerRisk’s expertise is based on decades of experience in industrial safety, including accident investigationsinternal and cooperative research and development, process safety management, and risk management, to provide comprehensive services that ensure the mitigation of potential disasters. We are committed to learning the lessons of the past, creating proactive strategies for the future, helping to prevent accidents, and keeping industries and individuals safe.

Contact us today and discover our expert safety solutions!