The recent hazardous materials explosion accident in Tianjin may have been unavoidable, but the emergency response and subsequent escalation of the catastrophe may have well been reduced or totally avoided if adequate information on materials stored at the vicinity, safety and firefighting procedures for the materials on site, and more comprehensive training of emergency personnel had been available.
Accidents do happen everywhere. It can be argued that in the United States effective workplace and environmental safety, which the U.S. OSHA implemented 40 or more years ago, only occurred after some catastrophic industrial disasters that resulted in tragic death and enormous productivity disruptions.
OSHA and the EPA have worked hard with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the United Nations to help improve environmental health and safety (EHS) globally. The acceptance of GHS, a global standard that unifies hazard identification, workplace safety and emergency response has been a great step in the right direction. Unfortunately, implementation has been slow, and tragedies like Tianjin could be have been reduced if GHS timelines had been met.
I have been to China regularly over the past decade, and though I have experienced firsthand a recognition by both government (China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection – MEP and the State Agency for Worker Safety – SAWS) of the need for chemical safety, it was also clear to see that turning rhetoric into action would require commitment that had not yet been strong enough to effect action. Just as importantly, changing workplace and worker habits would inevitably take some hard work to achieve. To draw a parallel, in U.S. Professional sports helmets and other protective gear were introduced into the various sports leagues a long time ago, but rules allowed for current players to continue playing without head gear until they retired while new incoming athletes had to abide by the new rules immediately. Change IS hard!!
A disaster like the Tianjin accident has all the markings of a nation that may be now ready to commit to change. Not only were workers lives lost, but scores of emergency responders died trying to control the disaster. Moreover, the disruption in operations and corresponding financial losses may be the catalyst for true and effective change in the country that the whole world looks to for goods every day.
There’s little doubt that investigations will take place, people will be charged with negligence and some with criminal conduct and government officials will be fired or even tried in court and punished. There’s a bigger issue here, and an opportunity to learn from this disaster and be better prepared or even avoid the next one. At an era when information is available online immediately, easily and often at no cost, there’s no reason to stay have a status quo.
There are many online tools like Chemical Safety’s free online safety database, available in Chinese at cn.chemicslsafety.com and also on EH&S mobile apps for iPhone and android that offer valuable Safety Data Sheet and GHS information for workplace and industrial safety. This tool contains the exact information that could have cautioned on how chemicals that were present in the disaster area should have been handled. Making it available to workers on their smartphone makes it easy to access during safe time, and an invaluable tool during emergencies.
I welcome your comments.