Safety culture key to preventing tank farm disasters in the future

21st February 2013

Didier Turcinovic argues that awareness and responsibility are needed to establish the sort of safety culture which will prevent future tank farm accidents.

The major fire that erupted at the Buncefield tank farm in Hertfordshire, England, was caused by the ignition of a vapour cloud. The fire started at 6 am on 11th December 2005 and lasted for three days. On that day, the site was holding around 35 million litres of petrol, diesel and aviation fuels.

In the surrounding areas, a total of 80 businesses employing about 4000 people were destroyed or badly damaged. The only good news is that the timing of this accident was in the favour of the employees and surrounding areas, so there were no fatalities. Had this incident occurred during normal business hours, Buncefield could have been the most deadly European industrial accident ever.

On 23rd March of the same year, across the Atlantic, a BP refinery in Texas City also experienced the ignition of a vapour cloud. This accident resulted in 15 fatalities and over 170 injuries.

Again, it could have been a lot worse if you consider that the company employed about 1800 full-time and part-time employees, as well as additional contract workers, with traffic ranging from 1000-5000 people on site per day during peak activity. The Texas City plant is BP's largest refinery worldwide and the third-largest in the US, producing about 2.5 per cent of the gasoline sold in that country.

These accidents are just the tip of the iceberg. Located in populated Western world regions, they produced dramatic images, feeding extensive media coverage.


Such events stimulated awareness around the world from the politicians to the general public, through to professional experts and industrialists.

In order to get a broader understanding of the consequences, it helps to consider workplace accident information. This information is not readily available outside the accidentology and labour specialists circle because databases are set up to meet specific needs and scopes, and it is almost impossible to compare like to like. However, one can access varied and meaningful indicators (Fig. 1).

The major accident reporting system (MARS) database(1) records show that approximately 30 major accidents happen each year within the industry sectors covered by the Seveso II directive in the EU. By definition these accidents have or potentially have major consequences for individuals and the environment.

Workplace accidents and disease costs are increasing and estimated to be about 3 per cent of gross national product (GNP) for most countries in Europe and around 4 per cent worldwide(2).

Annual estimates of global work-related deaths amount to 1.1 million(2).

Major accidents in the process industries worldwide have not shown significant improvement over time when the sole damage cost of these accidents is considered. In fact, from the mid 1960s to the late 1990s they more than doubled (using a linear trend model). From 2000 to 2005, there are still no measurable signs of improvement(3).

Human factors

These figures leave no doubt that we face a serious matter. An Analyse, Recherche et Information sur les Accidents (ARIA) study(4) reports that the root causes of over 50 per cent of the accidents in France are human and organisational factors. When analysis extends beyond the immediate causes, people and management are involved in almost all cases. Another source(5) indicates that the root cause of 40 per cent of accidents is due to inadequate specifications.

In practical terms, what does this mean for us in engineering offices and on plant sites? It means, at a minimum, a thorough implementation of process safety management, risk management programmes and functional safety standards and rules. It means not just producing paperwork, but performing detailed and valid assessments, verifications, inspections and investigations.

The BMIIB report(6), The Baker Report(7) and the Testimony of CW Merritt before the US Senate Committee(8), state a number of observations or recommendations. All refer to specific industry standards and rules, and their timely and thorough implementation. They also point out the need for the development of what we could call a 'positive safety culture'.

In practical terms, what does this mean for us, the citizens? This question might sound odd, but you may feel the burden of the social cost(2) and the psychological impact(9) of incidents; you could be a victim, or know someone who was; you may fear plant relocation forced by the perceived unsafe activities of plants; your children may contribute to the 'brain drain' by not studying engineering or chemistry because they don't see employment in a plant as a desirable or secure job; or perhaps you paid too much to fill up your car with petrol this year?

If any of these points ring true, then you can confidently say that you are not living in a society with a positive safety culture.

We all need to take responsibility. The first step is awareness. The second step is to invest in building a proper safety culture. The question is: how much profit needs to be made before industrialists take the leadership of a positive safety culture?

Didier Turcinovic is a TÜV Functional Safety Expert and president of Safety Users Group, San Jose, CA, USA. Safety Users Group is an independent professional community supporting the advancement of positive safety culture worldwide through the exchange of knowledge and experience in functional safety and standards such as IEC 61511, IEC 61508, ISA 84.


1 Major Accident Reporting System. European Commission, Joint Research centre, Ispra. http//;

2 Accident and diseases information, International Labor Organization.;

3 Source DNV Consulting, ARIA data base;

4 ARIA report on technology accidents 1992 - 2005;

5 Out of Control. Why control systems go wrong and how to prevent failure. Published by HSE. ISBN 0717621928;

6 BMIIB, Buncefield Major Incident Investigation Board - Recommendation on the design and operation of fuel storage sites.;

7 Report of the BP U.S. refineries independent safety review panel;

8 Testimony of Carolyn W. Merritt, Chairman and CEO US Chemical Safety Board before the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security, and Water Quality July 10, 2007. ;

9 Chemical plants are perceived as a higher risk than nuclear plants by the public in France with a growing perception, +10% between 2001 and 2004. See IRSN survey, Préventique magazine N°82, July-August 2005.


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