Vishakhapatnam gas leak: What were the errors and what are the lessons

Industrial management methodologies have to be fine-tuned in line with the COVID-19 pandemic, not only to ensure safety but to function effectively

By K Nagaiah, G Srimannarayana, Phaniraj G
Published: Monday 11 May 2020

The tragedy in Visakhapatnam is a double whammy for people who already face hardships because of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak and the nationwide lockdown to curb its spread. The accidental leak of styrene gas that oxidised to styrene oxide, a well-known carcinogenic, is a wake-up call to governments, industry and citizenry across the country.

There were several lapses on the part of the chemicals company. They should have altered the engineers to drench the factory with water. Though Styrene (b.p. 145oC) is not soluble in water, hydration could have prevented the escape of gas into the atmosphere.

Another seemingly glaring failure was the absence of an electronic sensor that blares loud sirens to alert nearby villages. The public was caught off guard and inhaled styrene oxide, causing severe health problems like burning sensation of skin, nausea, irritation in eyes and lungs within minutes and lingered on for hours.

The management’s explanation of auto-polymerisation during storage and addition of inhibitor t-butyl catechol is not relevant now. What matters is that precious lives were lost.

The management could have alerted authorities to direct the public to use wet towels or face masks to prevent further inhalation of toxic gases and to give drinking water to expel styrene / styrene oxide as a phenyl glyoxalin acid or mandelic acid through urine. The treatment is mostly symptomatic and patients recover in 8-10 hours, depending on their health conditions.

Styrene enters our body and pulmonary toxicity initiates the cytochrome P450 enzyme to convert styrene in styrene oxide. The toxic effects are felt in kidneys and heart function due to styrene oxide.

Safety data sheets

The situation could have been easily controlled had there been material safety data sheets (MSDS) available to employees, workers, firefighters, hospitals, police, local authorities and even the public.

MSDS or safety data sheets (SDS), its newer version, are documents that enlist vital information on health, transportation, storage, fire, reactivity, environment or accidental release hazards of chemicals and how to handle them safely.

SDS is a part of globally harmonised system (GHS) of classification and labeling of chemicals. Every manufacturer should fill in the SDS for the chemicals they make.

It is a 16-section document that is a ready reckoner for chemical safety and provides guidance to workers and employers for risk management in work place. India has not adapted GHS yet. Therefore, the government has to mandate the chemical industry to adapt an Indian version of SDS immediately.

The SDS should be made the holy grail of the chemical industry. All workers, employees and managers should be explained how to use them for chemicals they deal with.

Hard copies and soft copies of the SDS should be made available. It would also aid hospitals, firefighters, police and pollution control boards in emergency situations and accidental leakages.

Every company should display SDS on all the chemicals they manufacture, store, transport or use on their website prominently and also on the website of the district administration.

Civic authorities, police, government officials, disaster management teams and public in surrounding areas of chemical industries must be explained on the usage of SDS and should be trained via mock drills and dry runs.

All hospitals and doctors in the areas surrounded by chemical industries must be trained in procedures related to treatment of illnesses caused by hazardous chemicals. The SDS is also handy for environmentalists to assess likely damage and transporters to ensure they take proper steps.

To mitigate and control damage caused by the leak, urgent measures are needed. Air samples in the affected area must be collected and analysed through gas-liquid chromatography (GLC), with water in reservoirs tested through high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC).

Permissible levels must be consulted with SDS. Rooftops, common places and vegetation must be sprayed with water to remove styrene residue. Fruits, vegetables and cattle milk produced in the area should not be consumed. People should be allowed to return two or three days after styrene traces are gone.

Chemical and other industries using hazardous material must be mandated by governments to engage in massive public outreach programmes as a part of corporate responsibility. Companies must visit surrounding villages periodically and inform the public on the steps they have to take during unforeseen accidental leaks. Local authorities, elected representatives and members of public must be made a part of safety committees that should meet regularly to discuss latest safety measures and preparedness.

It is important to change the working styles and protocols during the post-lockdown phase. Many rules are being drafted and in many cases permissions to reopen are given with limited staff accommodation.

During the lockdown period, many essential maintenance and health checks may have been deferred with limited number of employees.

It is imperative for factories and industrial establishments to not kick-start their full production capabilities right away. A full safety evaluation and inspection of hazardous material storage values has to conducted and it should be ensured that all the equipment is in full operational mode and certified.

A video recording should be made available, with the inspector of factories and the fire department conducting spot checks.

Standard operating protocols

Governments have to issue standard operating protocols to all chemical and agrochemical manufacturing units to do post-lockdown health checks and submit the reports online.

Industrial management methodologies have to be fine-tuned in line with the pandemic, not only to ensure safety but to function effectively. Managements and employees should only think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘us’, rather than ‘me’ and ‘I’.

Employees who are responsible for safety and the essential part of the production lifecycle have to be identified immediately, with their knowledge documented, shared and transitioned to a team of employees. A knowledge base of safety procedures and protocols has to be created and all employees trained.

A system of knowledge-group buddies and a meticulous work distribution and sharing strategy needs to be implemented. Each critical group should have Team A and Team B that do not overlap with each other and work independently. Any critical task should be assigned to a team rather than an individual and make sure they are not heavily dependent on an individual.

This is taking into account that any of the team members can be vulnerable and be subject to infection or quarantine, but the work needs to have continuity in a safe way. All critical work should be reviewed and followed up by a stand-up meeting everyday so there is a firm handle.

The progress has to be achieved only incrementally and productivity rewarded at every step. A fallback plan should make sure that tasks revert to last successful checkpoints instead of starting all over again from scratch.

The government must seriously plan a localised emergency alert system using various communication channels that alert the public about any emergencies and what they have to do. Cellphone and landline companies should be asked to carry alerts to the area affected with special ringtones, vibrations and messages telling the people what to do.

Cable TV, direct-to-home services and radio stations should be asked to relay emergency alerts. Also, electronic siren systems must be installed and the public alerted to emergencies. These alert systems can help in industrial disasters, pandemics, law and order problems and natural disasters.

As we are in a pandemic mode, we must adopt to the new normal, but safety in industries cannot be compromised. We have endured a lot of hardships but let us not compromise safety and security while adjusting to the new environment. The Visakhapatnam gas leak must be an eye-opener.

In conclusion, the concentration of styrene / styrene oxide in the air of villages, milk of cattle, water bodies, and especially the Meghadrigadda reservoir, needs to be assessed by the company before reoccupation of villages.

GLC / HPLC methods are available at the parts per million level. Before nearby villages are reinhabited, they should be doused with fire engines. Villages on their part should wash their clothes and houses with water.

Post-mortem reports need to be published to know which organs were affected by styrene among those dead. A periodic checking of all villagers is a must to be careful about any possible carcinogenic effects.

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