With companies adjusting to the Covid-19 pandemic JRC warns about accidents

On 7-8 May 2020, a leak of hazardous styrene gas from a polymer plant in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India, led to the deaths of at least 11 people and hundreds of injured in the surrounding community. On 4 May 2020, an explosion at a plastics factory near Naples, Italy, killed one person and injured two others. According to media reports, both of these sites were starting up operations after being shut down as part of measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

In response to these incidents, the JRC has published a technical advisory report to remind industrial operators and governments everywhere to take appropriate measures to avoid unintended release of dangerous chemicals during shutdown and startup operations. An escape of toxic, flammable and explosive substances from tanks, vessels or pipes, if not controlled immediately, can cause fires and explosions or expose workers and communities to the effects of dangerous toxic substances.

Protective measures imposed by governments around the world to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus have necessitated the temporary closure of thousands of sites and substantial reduction in personnel remaining onsite. The chances of avoiding an incident, especially a serious accident, can be considerably reduced if the operator has a conscious strategy to keep plant safety at the forefront while addressing other pandemic-related concerns. Stopping production and starting production up again are not routine operations for most industrial plants. Strict procedures ensure that the operation is conducted safely so that, for example, no substances are released, vessels do not rupture or collapse from too much or too little pressure, and surges in power demand do not cause power failure.

There is also a higher risk for hazardous sites when operations are shut down for an unusually long or undetermined period of time, and when staff presence is reduced from normal operating levels. Risks requiring particular attention include substances that need special controls, such as a specific temperature or pressure, to prevent an accidental release, as well as explosive atmospheres, and warehouses.

Government bodies can use their authority to oversee hazardous sites, to raise awareness of the potential risks through communications, such as guidance or information letters. They can also conduct inspections at a distance asking questions about production and maintenance activities continuing onsite during shutdown as well as staffing and supervision.

This advisory report is relevant for a number of different industry sectors including manufacturers of basic chemicals, producers of commercial products, fuel production and storage sites , and sites producing or handling fireworks and explosives . Dangerous substances may also be used in large volumes in metalwork manufacturing and metal treatment, mining operations, pulp and paper mills, food processing and storage, and waste and water treatment.

The special issue of the “JRC Lessons Learned Bulletin for Chemical Accident Prevention and Preparedness on Pandemic Measures and Chemical Process Safety” was produced with the support of the OECD Bureau of the Working Group on Chemical Accidents. It is available on the JRC website at: https://minerva.jrc.ec.europa.eu/en/shorturl/minerva/llb_on_pandemic_measures_and_chemical_process_safety

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