When I started musing about the idea of writing an article in remembrance of Tianjin, never was it envisaged there would be another event occurring only a few days to Tianjin’s 5th anniversary.

Just like it happened in Tianjin, the peace of the city of Beirut was turned on its head on 4th August 2020 when an explosion tore through a ware house confirmed to be storing ammonium nitrate. Many have again sadly lost their lives.

The United States’ geological survey reported that the explosion measured 3.3 on the Richter scale. Tianjin’s measured about 2.9.

Both explosions involved a huge amount of the same substance; ammonium nitrate.

The explosions from the Beirut warehouse as captured on many video recordings is nothing short of apocalyptic.

How could such incident happen barely a year from the last one?

What happened to the concept of “learning from incidents”?

There have been so many major industrial accidents since modern human history and up to 90% accidents can be traced to human failure.

Some of the worst industrial accidents ever recorded such as the Bhopal gas disaster, Piper Alpha explosion, sinking of the herald of free enterprise, Chernobyl etc all have human failure as significant contributory factors.

Some things worth pondering in relation to these Beirut and Tianjin explosions include:

  1. Who is your neighbour?

This is a very important question for all organizations to ponder. Many organizations have next door industrial neighbours like the Beirut and Tianjin warehouses with no true understanding of the risk they face. The Beirut explosion wiped out the entire port area including other organizations in the area including those that possibly had their own good safety management systems.

While we may not be directly responsible or have control over how safety is managed in organizations around us, we should show interest in their safety management processes especially when we could be adversely affected when there is breach.

  1. Regulatory Oversight and Compliance

In both incidents, the authorities knew about the presence of the substance.

In Tianjin, the organization involved was licensed by the state as an agent for the handling of hazardous cargo while In Beirut, the substance was confiscated by the authorities.

Were there any set of specific regulatory requirements to be met? How much Safety training do employees of government agencies receive?

What requirements were set for the distance to be maintained from such facilities?

  1. Dangerous Goods Security

Ammonium nitrate like many other high consequence dangerous substances in the wrong hands could be used to perpetrate criminal activities which could lead to mass socio-economic disruption.

In 2014, suspected terrorists attacked a private company facility in Northern Nigeria carting away explosives in the process. We need not what the explosives were used for.

Many countries have strict requirements for the use, transport, and storage of high consequence dangerous goods. In some countries, ammonium nitrate use is subject to approval from the National security however what level of security do organizations handling such put in place to prevent unauthorized access to these storage areas?

  1. Public Safety and awareness

These incidents are a big eye opener for members of the public.

In some parts of the world, many naive members of the public who should be fleeing when incidents of this nature initially break out seem to attempt to get as close as possible for reasons best known to them.

This blast destroyed property as far as 10 km away from the blast site. The impact the Beirut explosion had on people in close proximity is unimaginable.

Member of the public must be educated to flee at the sight of such incidents and leave the response efforts to the trained emergency responders.

While we wait for the final outcome of the investigations into this accident, it’s a good time to ask the question; Where else do we have ammonium nitrate stored in large quantities the moment?

Written by: Taiwo Folorunsho, Operations Manager at Hybrid-DGM Ghana Limited