Indian chemical industry is the 6thlargest in the world and contributes to 2.11% of nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) while accounting for 15.95% of India’s manufacturing sector. It is one of the most diversified industry, manufacturing over 80,000 chemicals used in various industries and consumer products. However, this massive industry still lacks the basics of Prevention, Preparedness and Emergency response (PPE) when it comes to chemical accidents. Returning to operations after lockdown has resulted in three operations-based industry accidents in three different locations namely; Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu on the 7thof May, 2020.

The threat of industrial accidents exists everywhere including in countries that follow and maintain strict safety standards. These are calculated risks taken by each country in order to have a good economic development. Prevention, preparedness and emergency response are some of the strategies that are widely followed to reduce the health, environment and economic impacts that may arise due to chemical accidents. Given the recent turn of events, there is a reasonable belief that India’s growth in the chemical sector is going to increase further. It is time we focus on implementing the PPE for this sector to ensure that we grow as a reliable global leader.

Let us look at the Vishakhapatnam gas leak incident in Andhra Pradesh which resulted in 12 deaths and several injured, and analyse briefly what are the PPE’s that need to be in place to minimise similar incidents in future.

Prevention – India’s chemical policy is long overdue!

A chemical policy framework that incorporates regulations requiring mandatory registration based on tonnage, health and environment hazard classifications is a much-needed policy reform. A frame work that clearly identifies the onus of safety both on the context of worker and public safety and the environment can be an effective approach for prevention of accidents.

For example, most countries regulate chemicals based on tonnage bands such as less than or greater than 1, 10, 100 and 1000 metric tonnes of chemical per year by a manufacturer. These monitoring methods help departments to assess the extent of activity and also ensure the compliance of safety norms in operations. The Vishakhapatnam plant housed more than 18000 metric tonnes of styrene. In countries where chemical safety policies exist, such huge quantities often follow standard operating procedure (SOP) for occupational safety during operations and hazard classification of the chemicals in use for any potential health or environment risk. Presence of a detailed risk assessment report on such operations and following occupational safety standards could have prevented the Vishakhapatnam accident.

Currently, there is no quantitative restriction for any chemical imported to India except for few chemicals which are regulated by the International conventions. There is also no national inventory to track the quantity and activities of chemicals. Implementingthe chemical policy is the much-needed reform for this industry to assert stability. 

Preparedness

The safety culture of a facility is an indicator of its preparedness.Manufacturers should take the onus for safety of operations and wellbeing of their workers as an integral part of their operation culture. This can be implemented through SOPs, hazard risk assessment for both chemicals and operations. Workers should be trained for both operations and for potential emergency situations using proven and evidence-based protocols.

Going by media reports there were several operating procedural laps in the Vishakhapatnam gas leak. For example, the temperature of styrene in the storage tank went up to 180 degrees against the optimal temperature of 20 degrees. Higher temperatures resulted in potential styrene polymerisation which led to the gas leak. An SOP focussing on safety standards and reporting if present as a practice could have prevented or prepared the workers on how to maintain or respond in such situations.

Policies and strict enforcement of regulations such as reporting requirements that commensurate according to hazard profile of the operations can help in preventing emergency situations. Industry/trade associations and standards organisations should collectively develop critical guidance, plans and tools. Such developed resources should be proactively made available and communicated to all stakeholders. Creating awareness and educating the community and local authorities about their industry operations should become a part of the policy framework.

Lack of awareness and emergency plan costed the first few hours in the Vishakapatnam incident which had affected the first emergency responders too with the gas. The whole situation was controlled only after the National Disaster Response Force, Pune got involved.

The government policy or bodies should also ensure compliance of safety standards across all hazardous operations in the same way irrespective of their size, location or other factors. For example, MSME’s may not have the resources to carry out a risk assessment for their operations. In such cases, they should have the options for third party data adoption/ acceptance or a joint assessment option with similar players to develop their own safety culture. Such implementation can increase compliance and safety.

Emergency response

An emergency should trigger the activation of plan involving all stakeholders. Emergency response, on completion, should document all the incident details, mitigation measures and outcomes of the event to assess the efficacy of the response and recommend further improvements. Such measures allow a community to increase its resilience (the ability to recover from such incidents with reduced impact) and reduce its vulnerability (susceptibility to damaging effects of a hazard).  SMRF recommends the authorities to carry out a detailed study on the Vishakhapatnam accident and make the findings available to the public.

Conclusions

A strong chemical policy for India can create more opportunities for growth and sustainability for this industry. It is time that we should see any growth in totality where significant efforts are taken to monitor and protect health and environment. India needs the following:

  1. A Chemical policy.
  2. A national inventory for industrial and consumer chemicals.
  3. A strict monitoring and enforcement protocol for industries based on the nature of hazard.
  4. Create centres that study and recommend on occupational safety standards and recommend exposure limits for chemical exposure.
  5. Equip local public authorities to manage emergency response.

All these measures can help India position herself as a stable, reliable leader and a hub for chemical manufacturing.

Safety monitor research foundation (SMRF) (www.safetymonitor.org) is an NGO empowering consumers to make informed choices through safety ratings of products in the market. SMRF safety logo empowers businesses to communicate their product safety and claims, thereby earn consumer trust.