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Risk in Context

Five Key Steps to Manage Hazardous-Substance Storage Risks

Posted by August 28, 2015

As news and images of the explosions emerged from Tianjin, China in the early hours of August 12, 2015, including details about the firefighter lives lost battling the chemical-fuelled blaze, many organizations were likely asking, “How can we prevent this?”

While it’s impossible to predict an incident of this scale, the storage of hazardous substances in large warehouses is a common practice worldwide that requires careful risk management. The tragic event in Tianjin is a reminder that you should assess your hazardous-substance storage risks — which change frequently based on fluctuating levels and types of chemicals stored at various locations — and review your protection, risk mitigation, and emergency response plans.

To help minimize the risks to people and property from a large-scale warehouse explosion, you should consider taking the following actions:

1. Keep an accurate inventory of hazardous substances.  Maintain a comprehensive list of the hazardous substances in storage that can be quickly and easily made available to authorities in case of an emergency. Also, make sure to follow authorities’ guidelines or rules limiting the amount of a hazardous substance you may store.

2. Be aware of what you are storing. Understand what you are storing from your up-to-date safety data sheets.

3. Segregate incompatible substances to prevent escalation. Understand the incompatibility of hazardous substances. For example, as a rule do not mix organics with inorganics and remember that nitrates can be a source of explosion.

4. Communicate with the local fire department to coordinate tactical firefighting plans for hazardous substance fires. The first responders to a serious incident are firefighters, who must be familiar with your stored chemicals and plans, as different firefighting methods are used for different hazardous substances under storage. For example, the use of water may actually cause a runaway reaction and produce a powerful explosion in some situations.

5. Ensure that required public safety distances are met. In order to prevent impacts to the public, e.g., residential areas, from large-scale industrial fires and explosions, it is imperative that you comply with the safety distances prescribed by the government or resulting from safety studies with regulator-approved and implemented mitigations.

Safely storing large quantities of hazardous substances and knowing how to respond in a large-scale emergency will help protect the public, minimize business disruption, and maximize business recovery.