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February 17, 2011

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Need to maintain operations outweighed safety, Buncefield report reveals

Basic safety-management failings were the root cause of Britain’s most costly industrial disaster, according to a new report published yesterday (16 February).

In July 2010, five companies were fined a total of £9.5million for their part in causing the explosion and five-day fire at the Buncefield Oil Storage Depot, which resulted in massive environmental damage and devastated the local community.

The full story of the joint investigation by the HSE and Environment Agency into the 2005 disaster is told for the first time in the report, The Buncefield explosion: Why did it happen?

Drawing on previously unpublished material, held back until the criminal prosecution was completed and the appeals processes had run their course, the 36-page report identifies several contributory factors to the disaster. Not least, it condemns the development of a culture where maintaining operations was seen as more important than safe processes, which did not get the attention, resources, or priority status they required.

Other failings identified by the report included:

  • systems for managing the filling of industrial tanks of petrol were both deficient and only partially implemented;
  • an increase in the volume of fuel passing through the site put too much pressure on those responsible for managing how it was received and stored – a task they lacked information about, struggled to monitor, and made more difficult by a lack of engineering support and other expertise; and
  • inadequate arrangements were in place for containment of fuel and fire-water to protect the environment.

Gordon MacDonald, chair of the COMAH Competent Authority Strategic Management Group, which published the report, said: “Major industrial incidents are, thankfully, rare – this report will help make them even less frequent by sharing some key insights and lessons with the wider high-hazard industries.

“Companies that work in a high-hazardous industry need to have strong safety systems in place, underpinned by the right safety culture. Buncefield is a stark reminder of the potential result of a poor attitude towards safety.”

The report highlights a number of lessons on process-safety management principles, including:

  • there should be a clear understanding of major accident risks and the safety-critical equipment and systems designed to control them;
  • there should be systems and a culture in place to detect signals of failure in safety-critical equipment and to respond to them quickly and effectively;
  • time and resources for process safety should be made available;
  • once all the above are in place, there should be effective auditing systems in place, which test the quality of management systems and ensure that these systems are actually being used on the ground; and
  • at the core of managing a major-hazard business should be clear and positive process-safety leadership, with board-level involvement and competence to ensure that major-hazard risks are being properly managed.

With estimated total costs exceeding £1billion, the Buncefield explosion remains Britain’s most costly industrial disaster.

The report, The Buncefield explosion: Why did it happen? is available online.

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