Very soon, we will have the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster-one of the worst industrial accidents in the world. For the chemical industry worldwide, Bhopal is said to be the wake-up call and turning point that forever changed attitudes towards safety.
For those of you who are too young to remember the incident, here is a small recap. At night 25 years ago at the Bhopal factory of the then multinational company Union Carbide, a toxic gas cloud of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) leaked and killed thousands of people outside the factory in the surrounding areas, permanently disabled many and polluted the ground water and fields for miles around. Even today, if you visit the area, you will find hundreds of people suffering from the ill effects of the disaster.
So what has changed between then and now? A lot it seems, but also not as much as many would have wished. Union Carbide as a company was shamed and got destroyed eventually. Suddenly top managements of major chemical multinationals woke up to the fact that a single incident in a remote place in a far corner of the world could destroy their billion dollar enterprises. Plant people suddenly began to listen to safety experts and no longer treated safety as being “less macho” than being unsafe. HAZOPs and HAZANs, alarms and trips started being taken seriously. Governments everywhere woke up to the fact that the chemical industry could maim and kill large numbers of citzens who had no connection at all to the industry. They drafted new laws and established offices to ensure that safety standards in plants were improved dramatically. In short safety got its due importance. This stage lasted for a couple of decades during which incidents and near misses got reduced considerably.
Now what is happening? In the last five years, Safety seems to be fading back into the background. What is in vogue is outsourcing to third party manufacturers in thirld world countries (having very poor standards of safety), Cost cutting, stripping down of engineering and technical services departments , large scale shifting of chemical plants with strong environmental and safety laws to countries that couldn’t care less and so on. So we are back on a downhill path. This itself has resulted in an increase of accidents-I do not have statistics to back up my data, but I see a drastic rise in the number of such events.
The lessons seem to have been faded from memory of company managements if not outright forgotten. I will be glad if you think otherwise, please respond via the comments section.
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