© Vampy1 | Dreamstime
Aerial view during the explosion in the port area of Beirut, Lebanon. Ammonium nitrate stored in the harbor. 3D render.

Safety Lessons from the Beirut Blast

Sept. 29, 2020
America’s industrial facilities aren’t immune from similar catastrophes.

Last month, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, killing around 180 people, bringing down the Lebanese government, and sending officials around the world scrambling to figure out whether similar catastrophes were waiting to happen in their own ports and industrial facilities.

The short answer of course was, “Yes.” Around the world, countless industrial facilities and storage depots store dangerous chemicals in risky ways, including vast quantities of the same agricultural fertilizer that detonated in Beirut. In Dakar, officials found 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate sitting around in warehouses. In Chennai, port officials admitted that they were unsafely storing 800 tons of the chemical. Romanian officials uncovered almost 9,000 tons, including 5,000 tons at a single warehouse.

The United States isn’t immune to such slip-ups. In 1947, 600 people died when a boat loaded with 2,300 tons of fertilizer exploded while docked in Texas City, Texas. More recently, we’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t take thousands of tons of chemicals to cause a disaster. In 2013, a Texas fertilizer plant caught fire and exploded, killing 15 people and demolishing hundreds of nearby homes; it was later found to have been storing around 50 tons of ammonium nitrate. 

The real lesson from Lebanon—and Dakar, and Chennai, and Texas—is that preventing disasters doesn’t just depend on stopping importers and distributors from improperly storing huge quantities of chemicals. Risks are now distributed all through our industrial supply chain, and we need a diligent, joined-up approach to safety to prevent both large-scale disasters and smaller accidents that can be just as tragic for those affected by them.

That means getting three simple things right: oversight, communication and preventive maintenance. Let’s take a closer look at the way manufacturers can leverage these capabilities to keep their facilities safe in the wake of the Beirut disaster.

Where’s the Oversight?

It’s easy to blame Lebanon’s government for the Beirut disaster; after all, the government is unable to stop refuse piling up in the streets, so of course it has also dropped the ball when it comes to regulating dangerous chemicals.

But it’s dangerous to assume that governments elsewhere in the world are doing significantly better jobs. Take that fertilizer plant in Texas, for instance: When it blew up in 2013, it hadn’t had a full-scale Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection since 1985.

While OSHA inspections had already fallen on Trump’s watch, since the start of the pandemic the agency has essentially been on hiatus, with inspections down by two-thirds from the same period last year. To all intents and purposes, OSHA oversight has become reactive, not proactive: of the 6,800 serious accidents investigated by OSHA since 2013, about 91% took place at sites that hadn’t been inspected for at least a decade.

Better Communication

With government inspectors all too often MIA, it’s increasingly up to employers to take care of on-the-job safety. That starts and ends with communication: If workers know what they’re moving, storing and processing, they can make sure they’re taking the appropriate safety precautions. And if local officials and emergency crews know what’s held in warehouses and other facilities, they can take appropriate action swiftly if disaster strikes. 

The cost of failing to communicate can be high. In 1917, for instance, a ship loaded with 3,000 tons of high explosives caught fire in Halifax. Because local officials didn’t know what the ship was carrying, no precautions were taken, and hundreds of rubbernecking bystanders were killed instantly when the ship detonated.

To prevent such disasters, OSHA now requires chemical importers, distributors and manufacturers to use Safety Data Sheets (previously known as Material Data Safety Sheets) to explain the nature of chemicals they’re handling, including detailed information on how to handle fires or spills, how to treat injuries, and how to avoid triggering dangerous reactions. 

Still, such information is only useful if it’s accessible. That why, since at least 1999, many companies have maintained digital copies of their SDS assets, so if the clipboard describing how to safely handle a barrel of chemicals gets burnt, contaminated, or misplaced, it will still be easy for workers, managers and emergency teams to get immediate access to all the information they need. 

Transformative Technology

Keeping better records and making them accessible to everyone is a vital first step, but the push for on-the-job safety doesn’t end with better communication. The real Holy Grail of operational safety is to use technology to transform workplace culture—and that means going beyond mere compliance, and rethinking the way that digital tools can inform and strengthen our operational workflows.

The goal can’t just be for every dangerous chemical in your warehouse to have its own digital record detailing how it can be safely handled and used. That’s important, but it’s really just a first step. To truly build out a safer operational culture, we need to harness the full power of mobile tech and the Internet of Things to create digital twins of all our operations and assets in the field—a virtual model that includes chemicals or potentially dangerous equipment, but that also includes vehicles, computers, pipelines, heavy equipment, thermostats, pressure gauges, and even people.  

By taking an all-in approach to virtualization, we can open the door to a new kind of proactive, top-down safety management. Measuring and monitoring our entire operational environment creates huge data flows that can be analyzed remotely, using artificial intelligence and automation, to proactively identify small problems in real time before they spiral into major disasters. With the right tools, in other words, we can create workplace cultures in which human error no longer leads to disasters. 

Start Your Engines

To achieve that, we need to ensure we’re using technology appropriately and consistently at all levels of our organizations. Frontline operators need streamlined mobile tech to help them track assets, log maintenance and inspection work, and get instant access to documentation that’s currently too often siloed away in three-ring binders and dusty filing cabinets. Managers, meanwhile, need a seamlessly connected suite of effective oversight and analytics tools to automatically surface escalating problems, check that dangerous materials are handled correctly, and ensure preventive maintenance is carried out on schedule.

What’s needed, in short, is a top-to-bottom approach to safety that uses digital technology to forge a link between operators, equipment and processes. Having a single trackable source of truth for safety procedures is vital—not just to ensure that potential problems are quickly spotted, but also to ensure that flagged issues remain in a failed state until the proper corrective action is implemented and verified.

Done right, this standardized digital operational engine can keep information flowing in both directions, ensuring that nobody’s left guessing about the right way to handle a given situation, or left in the dark about what’s going on elsewhere in the facility. The right technology, in other words, can help foster a culture of oversight and accountability that makes the entire organization far safer for everyone.

Connectivity is Key

This all boils down, of course, to the simple lesson that connectivity and information-flows are critical to maintaining safety in the modern industrial workplace. That’s something we all know, but as the Beirut blast shows, it’s something that sometimes gets neglected. Worst of all, it’s something that can easily fall by the wayside in times like these, when employee turnover is high and institutional knowledge is easily lost. 

To keep facilities safe, we can’t rely on OSHA or other government actors to spot problems before they happen. For better or worse, it’s up to safety managers, plant managers and frontline workers to pull together, and implement smart tools and effective information architecture to keep our factories and our communities safe from harm. Whether you’re handling thousands of tons of dangerous materials, or simply trying to keep machinery operating safely, there’s no substitute for a rigorous and well-resourced top-to-bottom culture of workplace safety.

Chris Turlica is CEO of MaintainX, a workflow coordination, communication and compliance platform for industrial and frontline teams.

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