Chemical industries are process industries, primarily engaged in converting raw material into intermediates or end products by physical or chemical means. Process activities consist of manufacturing, storage, handling and transportation of hazardous chemicals in bulk or packaged condition to the final consumers. As the chemical industry has grown in size and complexity, there have been increases in hazards to which the laboratory personnel, industrial workers, nearby residents and the surrounding environment (including livestock, flora and fauna) are exposed directly or indirectly. The risk is sometimes further compounded by unsafe handling of plant operations at the chemical units, as these units are generally not ready to handle extreme conditions. There might be typical adverse effects in the form of chemical explosions or industrial fires which can cause injuries and loss of lives apart from large scale destruction. Hazardous (harmful) substances released into water or air may travel long distances and contaminate soil, crops and livestock, making the affected area uninhabitable for humans. Further, ecological systems may be disrupted resulting in deep-rooted environmental imbalance.
Chemical Disaster Risk in India
India has witnessed the world’s worst chemical (industrial) disaster—the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984, where thousands of people died due to accidental release of the toxic Methyl IsoCyanate (MIC) gas. India continued to witness a series of chemical accidents after Bhopal, demonstrating the vulnerability of the country. Four major chemical incidents that took place during the last 25 years—explosion in IPCL Gas Cracker Complex at Nagothane in Maharashtra (1990); explosion at HPCL refinery at Vishakhapatnam (1997); gas cylinder burst in Mumbai (2001) and IOCL Fire Tragedy of Jaipur (October 2009). Only in the last decade, 130 significant chemical accidents have been reported in India, which resulted in 259 deaths and 563 major injuries.
Major Risk Prone Units in India
There are about 1861 major accident hazard (MAH) units, spread across 301 districts (Fig 1) in all zones of the country. Apart from these, other small and medium sized industries and new industries are being established at a rapid rate.
Chemical accidents can occur at any time due to the lack of safety measures, technical breakdown, nature-induced effects or due to human error. These disasters are low in frequency but are very significant in terms of loss of lives, injuries, environmental impact and property damage. This phenomenon manifests into immediate and residual or long term consequences. The irony is that despite the Bhopal disaster, and innumerable gas leaks, fires, explosions and accidents reported over the years, including Jaipur Oil depot (IOC) fire, Bombay Port Trust chlorine leak, Sivakasi explosion, and recent Surat IOC fire (January 2013), the accidents have not adequately abated even after the notification of applicable Acts, leaving India’s communities vulnerable. Moreover, people are not sufficiently aware of the risks they are living with.
Chemical Industrial Safety Measures for Prevention of Accidents
Though a modest beginning has already been made towards chemical disaster management (CDM) in India in the form of regulatory framework and guidelines, adequate safety of chemical plants, associated workers and the surrounding community still has a long way to go. Looking at the current CDM scenario in the country, it is clearly observed that chemical accidents can be avoided up to some extent by adopting sound chemical safety measures by key stakeholders.
Chemical units: The prime focus of chemical units should be on overall risk management. The AS/NZS ISO 31000: 2009 Risk Management Principles and Guidelines are being globally used in industrial units for overall risk management. Chemical units should classify all the activities to establish context, stage-wise from beginning till the end (process design to delivery stage) and then start identifying potential hazards that exist in these activities or sub activities, in order to understand what problems can happen and how. After risk identification, the process of risk assessment should take place in two parts. First, risk analysis needs to be carried out on the basis of likelihood of activities and the probable consequences. After that, risks should be estimated through evaluation, and prioritised in sequence. Next, the risks should be addressed by developing action plans. Against each action plan, responsibilities and target dates should be assigned so that all potential risks can be tracked and addressed in a phased manner. The entire process should be monitored and reviewed periodically by the management, taking all the concerned people into the loop through communication and consultation. As part of process safety management, the units should have standard operating procedures (SOPs), which need to be adhered to during processes. The workers, in particular, should be well informed.
For safe transport of hazardous chemicals (HAZCHEMs), MAH units are recommended to follow certain procedures prescribed under National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) guidelines. These guidelines cover specific technical instructions for safe transportation of HAZCHEMs via rail, road, air, marine or pipelines etc. It must be ensured that small and medium enterprises dealing with hazardous materials, generally located in the periphery of urban cities, should not exceed the safety limit of buffer stock of hazardous chemicals. Safety culture amongst employees and workers must be developed by conducting refresher trainings. In addition, safety audits and periodic checks must be ensured through credible agencies, to monitor implementation of plant safety initiatives at the site.
The unit owners and corporate should be encouraged to undertake corporate social responsibility and responsible care, to invest in disaster prevention and awareness at the community level. Responsible care framework promotes codes of practice on process safety, pollution prevention, employees’ health and safety, and community awareness for emergencies.
Government’s role: It is the responsibility of the government to develop a legal framework for institutionalisation of CDM and to govern the entire process. A number of regulations already exist in India for the organised sector, in the form of various Acts such as Environment Protection Act 1986, Factories Act 1948, Explosives Act 1884, Public Liability Insurance Act 1991, Disaster Management Act 2005 etc., and allied rules primarily including Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical (MSIHC) 1989, Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) 1996 etc; however, the key is implementation at the ground. Further, implementation of NDMA Guidelines on CDM and a national policy on safety, health and environment at the units is also important.
Institutional safety mechanism for the unorganised sector: On occupational safety and health aspects, a mechanism is to be devised with joint support from bodies like Directorate General of Factories Advice Service and Labour Institutes (DGFASLI), National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) etc. The focus should be on localised risks and behaviour based safety.
Penalising defaulter units: In case of non adherence of Factories Act 1948, Environment Protection Act 1986, and other allied rules (MSIHC, EPPR etc.) and regulations pertaining to chemical safety, prompt action should be taken against defaulters. Chemical units which are dumping hazardous waste in unsafe manner and polluting the surrounding environment should be strictly penalised.
Emergency plan: The district authority, the nodal agency at the district level, is responsible for the development and institutionalisation of the offsite emergency plan of the district. The concerned departments and community should be sensitised by the district authority about potential hazards and preparedness. Further, it should take stock of the required and available resources, conduct inventorisation at district and sub district level and also equip the district emergency operations centre to meet all the communication and coordination requirements. The district authority should also periodically facilitate the district crisis group (DCG) and keep track of activities of local crisis group (LCG) on potential chemical hazards and associated risks.
NGOs and community: Although NGOs are not entirely technically sound from the point of view of chemical industrial safety, they are generally the first responders. Therefore, it is also very important for these stakeholders to be sensitised about chemical hazard prevention and preparedness. The identified group or representatives should be part of LCG, and report unsafe observations, such as chemical spillage, leakage, or dumping of hazardous waste in the surroundings, and share information with the community about applicable hazards and local safety measures. The identified group of volunteers, community representatives and citizens task force should be trained in the dissemination of warning in the vicinity to assist the district authority and chemical units, as and when required, by using local communication means.