A major fire broke out on the Astonfields Industrial estate in Stafford last week. The cause of the fire, which raged on Wednesday 2nd March 2016, remains unknown and is being investigated by the Staffordshire Fire Service.
The fire was first flagged by a worker on the premises. It has been widely reported that the fire began at some time near 8.45am, and that the building collapsed by 11am. More than 70 firefighters were needed to prevent the fire, which they were able to contain by Wednesday afternoon.
The factory was storing 40,000 litres of oil, which is believed to be one of the primary reasons for why the blaze burned for a number of hours. Staffordshire Fire and Rescue spokeswoman Michelle Hunt said: “The oil did catch fire. We don’t know where it was on the site but it was on Global Hygiene’s premise. On our log it said there was approximately 40,000 litres.” Whilst the oil was a primary concern for all involved, it is broadly believed that a gas main was involved in the fire which caused major problems for the emergency services.
Despite the severity of the fire there were luckily very few casualties. West Midlands Ambulance Service stated that one man working at the factory had suffered from minor burns, but there were no other injuries. Due to the massive amounts of smoke from the blaze Dr David Kirrage, Health Protection consultant for Public Health England in the West Midlands, said “Our continuing advice is for people to stay out of the smoke where possible. For those homes in the path of the smoke plume please keep doors and windows closed.”
Although we do not currently know the cause of the fire, one thing we can take from this event is the importance of hazardous material storage. The storage of the oil at the Global Hygiene warehouse was of primary concern at the time of the blaze. Although Staffordshire fire and rescue were not aware of the exact location of the oil on site, it was vital that the oil didn’t catch fire immediately so that staff could be safely evacuated.
Just one day prior to the fire at Global Hygiene, there was another blaze at an industrial yard in Enfield. It took over 70 firefighters to tackle the fire, which destroyed a warehouse after a huge stack of pallets caught fire. The cause of this fire is also unknown, but similarly highlights the importance of proper hazardous material storage.
Following these two recent fires in the UK, we must take a step back and think what improvements can be made to assist firefighters in the future. One thing to note following the Enfield and Staffordshire fires is that traditional smoke detection systems can be insufficient for outdoor industrial sites, as they do not detect smoke quick enough. It is of great importance to detect a fire as soon as possible. David Bendall, business development manager at Spotfire which develops cameras that use infra-red to detect flame within seconds, said that “All other forms of detection require can take five minutes to detect smoke. A camera will pick up smoke or flames in about 10-15 seconds.”
It is clear that there is a need for change in order to improve safety in the industry. In industrial sites, there should be an evaluation into hazardous materials handling, storage and transport. Industrial organisations must take a responsibility to work with the local fire department to provide key information, such as SDS sheets of the materials housed on site. In an ideal world every organisation should have a regimented emergency response plan in place to mitigate the risk to lives and the environment when disasters like this happen.Poor chemical storage to blame for Texas blast
A final report on the West Fertilizer Company plant explosion in 2013, which left 15 people dead and more than 160 injured, has revealed that inadequate chemical storage was to blame for the blast.
The West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility in West, Texas caught fire and subsequently exploded. The blast happened as firefighters attempted to drench the flames, leaving 11 firefighters dead. The blast shook the town of West, Texas. It was enormous registering on seismographs as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake and shaking homes up to 50 miles away.
What was the cause and who is to blame for this horrific blast?
The incident was labelled as “preventable” by the chairman of the U.S chemical safety board. Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso described how the blast “should have never occurred.” The finger has been pointed at many different parties. The U.S. Chemical safety board blamed government regulators, other authorities and the plant owners themselves for the explosion.
Poor chemical storage is broadly believed to be the primary factor involved in leading to this blast. It’s time for change in regards to how dangerous chemicals are being stored. According to TheHill.com the fertiliser plant was storing ammonium nitrate – the primary reason for the tragic blast.
The report focuses on how the ammonium nitrate was being stored. It is believed that ‘ammonium nitrate which is used to make fertilizer, was stored in bins in a seed’. This improper storage proved to be disastrous. According to The New York Times the company: ‘stored 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia at the plant’. However, the company did not appear to disclose the amount of ammonium nitrate it was storing.
Dallas Morning News reported: ‘Fertilizer facilities like the one in West are not required to have liability insurance that would compensate for damage they might cause, state insurance officials say, even if hazardous material is on hand.’ It’s evident that the danger associated with these chemicals had not been recognised. In addition to these problems, it’s thought that McLennan County, Texas didn’t have an emergency response plan in place. It’s believed that one of the key issues cited in the report is the lack of fire codes.
Lessons to be learnt following the disaster
It must now be a top priority for industrial organisations in the US to review the manner in which dangerous chemicals are handled and stored.
Eventually in April 2015, three bills were introduced regulating storage and inspection of ammonium nitrate and a fourth bill was also introduced to create a notification system alerting the public about any hazardous chemical leak at a nearby manufacturing facility – this bill was introduced throughout the whole state of Texas.
Disasters like Texas and Tianjin in China clearly highlights the need for a global approach to improving health and safety legislation, in particular with the handling and storage of highly hazardous materials.Tianjin blasts: Time for reform
As the death toll reaches 164, we look back at how it happened, and what lessons the industry needs to learn going forward.
Last month, the people of Tianjin, China succumbed to a number of large explosions in the one of the world’s busiest ports. The chemical blasts began in a warehouse owned and operated by Ruihai International Logistics. The explosions continued for over 72 hours – causing large fires, destruction to neighbouring buildings, homes and a tragic loss of life.
The emergency response team of fire fighters who arrived at the scene first were not made aware or did not have access to the critical information of what hazardous materials were being stored on the blast site. Without knowing, the fire fighters accelerated the blaze by spraying water on the chemical fire that was comprised of large amounts of calcium carbide – a hygroscopic that when mixed with water emits flammable gases (acetylene).
This hazardous atmosphere gave rise to secondary explosions on site.
Tonnes of toxic chemicals found
It is widely reported the warehouse was holding large amounts of sodium cyanide, potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate and calcium carbide. Each chemical is extremely hazardous in its own right when transported, stored or dispensed in an unsafe manner.
According to the Guardian, at least 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide was stored on site. Sodium cyanide is extremely toxic and causes adverse effects in humans and all other living organisms. Last month, we spoke to Roland Hughes at the BBC and explained: “With such a large fire, inevitably the plume of toxic fumes that have been dispersed could have devastating effects to the public in the future.”
Sodium cyanide running off into groundwater systems and the nearby estuary in the port not only poses a risk to public health but it also threatens biodiversity in aquatic environments. We also explained to Gautam Naik, reporter at the Wall Street Journal that having such a deadly chemical in the atmosphere could have prolonged consequences. If winds disperse the plume, its effects could be felt over a wider area. A lack of wind on the other hand would mean the toxic plume would be present in the local atmosphere for a longer period of time.
Hard lessons to learn from this disaster
One month on from the blasts, the Chinese government has issued an emergency notice, ordering a nationwide examination of dangerous chemicals and explosives.
And although it appears there is a push to crackdown on illegal activities involving the transport, distribution and improper storage of hazardous materials, it remains to be seen whether industrial organisations will learn the hard lessons from this disaster.
Only time will reveal the long-term health effects that the people of Tianjin have been exposed to. Now it’s more important than ever to reinforce the controlling of major accident hazards for industrial organisations as a top priority.
Compliance with governing directives such as the Seveso III Directive is imperative to minimise the risk surrounding the use, handling, transport and storage of hazardous materials. If you have any duties under the Control of Major Accident Hazards, we recommend you read the 2015 regulations.