One year after the fatal explosion at a fertiliser plant in Texas, what lessons have been learned for the safety of chemicals facilities on this side of the Atlantic?
During April of last year an ammonium nitrate explosion at a fertiliser plant located in the town of West, Texas left more than 15 people dead and over 200 injured.
Its effect served as an unwelcome reminder to the global chemicals industry of just how dangerous the handling of chemicals can be – especially when safety practices are not adequately adhered to.
Industry experts from the UK chemicals sector agree that although accidents like that at West Fertilizer cannot be completely ruled out, the likelihood of it happening here is considered to be very low.
For the UK chemicals industry, the explosion at West Fertilizer led to more frequent inspections of larger ammonium nitrate facilities and served as a platform for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and its industry partners to discuss its own best practice methods, rather than a dramatic re-evaluation of safety guidelines.
“In Great Britain, the underpinning principle for safely managing ammonium nitrate storage and blending facilities is the prevention of fire by eliminating combustible materials as far as possible and minimising ignition sources,” explains HSE specialist explosives inspector Dave Adams.
The Notification and Marking of Sites (NAMOS) regulations require any site within the UK holding more than 25 tonnes of dangerous substances to notify the fire authority, Adams says.
Ensuring ammonium nitrate facilities are well regulated and safely operated is a key component of the chemical industry’s Fertiliser Industry Assurance Scheme (FIAS).
“The scheme is administered by the industry, with government support, and companies are audited annually against FIAS standards by an independent team,” says Adams.
“After Buncefield, the UK formed the Process Safety Leadership Group (PSLG),” says Neil Smith, head of skills development at process industries skills body Cogent.
“You can learn a lot from incidents. Operators may be subjected to regulation and they may be operating within those regulations, but only operating within the regulations doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they will be safe. You have to work hard at it all the time.”
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