25 Years on From Bhopal - Have The Lessons Been Learned?

The Bhopal disaster was almost certainly the worst incident in the history of the chemical industry. 25 years on from Bhopal, we must take a step back and assess whether the lessons have truly been learned.

The incident took place at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. On 3rd December 1984, the plant released 42 tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, exposing more than 500,000 people to toxic gases.

The first official immediate death toll was 2,259. A more generally accepted figure is that 8,000- 10,000 died within 72 hours, and it is estimated that approximately 25,000 have since died from gas-related diseases.

The causes were multiple.
  • Capital expenditure was minimised
  • General cost cutting had led to poor working conditions and an inadequate inspection regime
  • Safety rules were inadequate and operators were instructed to ignore them
  • Training was cut back drastically to cut costs
  • Workers were forced to use manuals in English, even though very few could understand the language
  • Some safety features had been dismantled or disabled
  • Safety systems were inadequately designed
  • Supervision was reduced to save cost
  • Poor morale led to an exodus of skilled personnel to better and safer jobs
There is no doubt that the chemical industry has improved significantly since Bhopal. I would very much doubt  that such a severe set of issues can exist at any modern-day facility. In general, awareness of process safety is generally much improved throughout the industry.

In spite of this, however, we can not and must not be complacent. The current recession has hit the chemical industry hard and finances are under severe pressure - meaning that cost cutting is essential to survival. This is real life and has to happen - but at the same time, we must ensure that the safety and integrity of our plants is never compromised.

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