Bhopal +20, a hard lesson we’re still learning

Dec. 14, 2004
Managing Editor Steve Kuehn points to lessons learned and not learned during the 20 years since the worst industrial accident in human history in his new Actionable Items column for CONTROL magazine.
 By Steve Kuehn, Managing Editor


s human beings we alternately do great things and horrible things, soaring to new heights of achievement and then stand by watching as the malevolent forces of unintended consequence crash our best works to the ground, often snuffing out innocent lives in the process. Twenty years ago last month, arguably the worst industrial accident in human history occurred at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. For many souls the knell continues, but in the days immediately following the release of a thick 40-ton cloud of incredibly toxic methyl isocyanate, some 3,000 people died and at least 100,000 were injured according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

Most sources characterize the accident as a result of a cataclysmic collision of system failures, negligent plant design deficiencies, outright sabotage and corporate and bureaucratic malfeasance. While groups representing victims, environmental activists and subsequent Indian governments would like to point the finger of blame (and lever out more settlement cash for its legacy of liabilities real or imagined) squarely at Union Carbide and its recent owner Dow Chemical, the murky truth is that small increments of blame can be portioned across the many individual actors in the drama as well as the greater society in which its stage was set.

On the occasion of its twentieth anniversary the question on my mind is: What has the chemical industry learned about plant safety and accident prevention since the tragedy? 

“The impact of Bhopal went well beyond Union Carbide. It changed views and practices among the entire U.S. chemical industry.”

Nine years after the disaster, an independent report funded by Union Carbide Corp., “Union Carbide: Disaster at Bhopal,” by Jackson Browning, vice president (retired) Health, Safety and Environmental Programs, offered this: “The impact of Bhopal went well beyond Union Carbide. It changed views and practices among the entire U.S. chemical industry. It provided impetus to the development and enactment of federal laws requiring companies to notify government and the public about toxic substances they make or use. The EPA’s Federal Superfund Reauthorization, spurred by the Bhopal tragedy, helped bring about a network of local emergency planning councils, in which corporate specialists work with neighboring communities to safely deal with unthinkable environmental disasters.”In spite of shrill voices to the contrary, there is more than ample evidence to show that Union Carbide acted as responsibly and morally as it could in the months and years following that awful December day in 1984. Browning described the effort, saying the accident spurred new cycles of process monitoring and a fresh look at risk management. “There was an unprecedented search for every risk, any risk,” he said. “We discovered that there was still much more that we could accomplish in maintaining safer operations. And money and staff were committed to those objectives.”Has that kind of attitude truly permeated the chemical industry? The jury is still out, but great progress has been made according to Ernie Hood in his paper “Lessons Learned? Chemical Plant Safety since Bhopal,” published in May, 2004 by Environmental Health Perspective, the peer-reviewed online journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science.“Despite the lack of definitive, rigorous assessment of chemical safety in the U.S., tremendous strides have been made over the past 20 years in culture, practices, and attitudes in the chemical-handling community, as well as in the regulatory environment that governs the industry,” said Hood.Perhaps the most important development in those efforts he said, has been the widespread acceptance of the concept of process safety. Hood defined process safety as a “comprehensive, systematic approach encompassing the proactive identification, evaluation, and mitigation or prevention of chemical releases that could occur as a result of failures in the process, procedures, or equipment.” A mouthful to be sure, but it covers very necessary ground. In other words, when it comes to plant safety leave no stone unturned.Although the idea had been around since before Bhopal, he said, the magnitude of the tragedy brought about its complete acceptance as industry standard practice, formalized in 1985 with the creation of the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.Time may heal all wounds, but for the chemical industry this one is still very tender to the touch. Have we really learned our lesson? Will something like this happen again? Of course it will—we’re only human. But in 20 years we have come along way, and we won’t stop learning how to prevent something like Bhopal from ever happening again.

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