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What We Don't Know About Chemical Accidents

Thu, 09/05/2013 - 8:35am
Karl Stephan, Consulting Engineer, Texas State University, San Marcos

The fertilizer-plant explosion last April 17 in West, Texas that killed 15 and demolished a good part of the town was only the most recent of a number of accidents involving hazardous chemicals that have happened in Texas over the years. Home to a large number of refining and petrochemical plants and other high-tech industries, Texas has had more of its share of explosions, fires, releases of toxic and polluting chemicals, and other chemical-related accidents. But when a team of Dallas Morning News reporters tried to answer what they thought was a simple, straightforward question about the frequency of chemical accidents, they found a mare's nest of conflicting and incomplete statistics. Is this a basic problem that leads to a higher rate of accidents than we would otherwise have? Or is it just an inherent difficulty that comes about because of the nature of chemical accidents?

The News reporters were unable to find a single database of national scope that answered the question they were asking. I think what they wanted to find was something like what the U. S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) maintains on statistics such as cases of measles or rabies, or the National Transportation Safety Board's database on fatal accidents involving air transport. But what they found instead was a hodgepodge of things: raw unfiltered lists of emergency calls to the U. S. Coast Guard, lists of incidents investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and data collected by the Chemical Safety Board, which relies primarily on media reports—in other words, the reporters themselves! They found glaring inconsistencies among the numbers cited by the various sources of information, and although they were able to identify 24 potentially serious chemical accidents in Texas between 2008 and 2011, they were almost sure that the true number was higher.

The first question in compiling statistics on something is to define exactly what you are compiling statistics on. The problem of defining a chemical accident is not a trivial one. Clearly, if I'm working in my garage and accidentally knock over a can of used oil that spills into the ground, that is not something that should be treated with the same seriousness as the West explosion. But by some definitions, both are chemical accidents. So first, a line needs to be drawn defining how serious an accident should be before it is logged into a database. But how do you draw that line? Should you log only accidents that resulted in casualties (deaths or injury to persons), or a minimum amount of property damage, or all accidents that involve certain types of particularly hazardous chemicals? There are millions of kinds of chemicals, and the hazard to humans of many of them are simply unknown.

Even if we agree that casualty-only accidents are what we want, the problems of privacy and legal liability come into play. As noted by the Dallas Morning News reporters, private firms are reluctant to share details of their inner workings that might leave them open to lawsuits or might prove repellent to potential investors. As the aftermath of the West explosion has shown, the legal environment of chemical accidents is complex, poorly defined, and is the result of a tangle of criminal, regulatory, and civil codes that do not produce the kind of clear-cut situations that are easy to record in databases.

Not mentioned by the investigative reporters is a powerful external force on chemical industries which makes most firms maintain and enforce strict internal safety rules and records of accidents. This force is applied by insurance companies. My brother-in-law is the chief safety officer for a large firm that operates refineries in several states. One of his main jobs is to travel to the home offices of the company's main insurers annually, and present detailed reports of his firm's safety records and the measures they are taking to make sure lessons are learned from near-misses in order to prevent bigger accidents in the future. While these matters are handled out of the public eye, the desire to keep insured is one reason that the chemical industry as a whole has a safety record that is much better than it could be, considering the millions of pounds of hazardous material that passes through its facilities every year. And in conversations with my brother-in-law, I have learned that firms quickly learn about accidents at other firms, and take steps to make sure those types of incidents don't happen to them too. In other words, a good bit of what a comprehensive nationwide database of chemical accident reports would do, is already taking place: namely, information-sharing among the plant operators themselves.

Of course, there are always exceptions, which often tend to be among the smaller independent operators that can't afford full-time safety officers and large staffs. The West fertilizer plant was one such operation, but it is not clear that having an accurate national database of fertilizer-plant explosions would have made much difference in the way that particular accident transpired.

More and better publicly accessible information about chemical accidents is a desirable thing, and I hope that the West explosion will lead to a better system of gathering and presenting such data nationwide. But if this goal is achieved at the cost of burdensome, onerous, and unjustly harsh regulations of industries which already do a fairly good job of self-policing due to the economic interests of their insurers, the price tag may be more than we should pay.

Sources: The Dallas Morning News report appeared on that paper's website on Aug. 24-25 at http://www.dallasnews.com/news/west-explosion/headlines/20130824-after-w....

This column originally appeared on the Engineering Ethics blog, you can find it by visiting http://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/.

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