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Safety Of Industrial Plants: What Can India Do Better?

Ammonia leakage leads to asphyxiation. Notable among these mishappenings are the Vizag plant leak early in 2020, and the October 2018, Bhilai Steel plant of SAIL in Chhattisgarh, where 9 people died and 14 were injured.

Photo Credit : Reuters


The Ammonia gas leak on late Tuesday at IFFCO (Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited) in Phulpur Unit of Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, has claimed the lives of 2 people and injured 15. This disaster has brought the safety of power plants back into focus.

As per NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) website, on 1 November 2017, 3:30 p.m. a boiler explosion occurred at the 1,550-megawatt (MW) Feroze Gandhi Unchahar Thermal Power Station operated by the government of India in Raebareli district, Uttar Pradesh, killed 29 people and injuring 100 others. After this incident, the Ministry of Power brought a lot of change in the management of NTPC, and the regulations issued subsequently were heeded by private sector companies as well.

Ammonia leakage leads to asphyxiation. Notable among these mishappenings are the Vizag plant leak early in 2020, and the October 2018, Bhilai Steel plant of SAIL in Chhattisgarh, where 9 people died and 14 were injured. In 2017, cold storage of potatoes in Kanpur experienced a similar ammonia leakage.

The infamous Bhopal Gas Strategy of 1984 was one such disaster, following which the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change came up with a set of regulations. These acts targeted minimizing power plant disasters and increased regulation while constructing power plants, use, and handling of hazardous chemicals to maintain safety protocol. The first of these acts was Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989, (MSIHC) to drastically limit the major chemical accidents and limit the effect of chemicals on humans and wildlife in case a disaster does occur. Some specifics of this act would include, the onsite team of Major Accident Hazard (MAH) units is responsible for the preparation and execution of emergency plans. In addition, the Chief Inspector of Factories (CIF) in consultation with district personnel are required to prepare off-site emergency plans as well. The second act with a similar agenda is Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996. As per this act, each state is required to set up a crisis management group and report on its working regularly to a designated authority. While this law is effectively implemented it is serves as a post-disaster afterthought.

We already have pre independence laws such as the Indian Boilers Act, 1923. The act was introduced with a view to provide safety of people, operating staff and the property from any mishap in the steam boilers. It aimed to achieving a smooth and cohesive registration and inspection process during operation and maintenance of boilers. Also, India has 1861 “Major Accident Hazard” units in 301 districts, spread uniformly across 25 states and 3 union territories, as per Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority website.

One would expect existing laws framed over a period of 100 years will enable plant safety and bring reassurance among workers. However, we are still in a worry-some situation concerning human and animal life, environmental repercussions, and property damage. National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) website has published that, 130 significant industrial accidents have taken place recently in India. This resulted in killing 259 people and caused debilitating injuries to 560 people in around the plant area.

There are some key reasons why we are unable to curb industrial disasters despite existing legislation and precautions. Firstly, a gas leak takes place at significantly large pressure which is difficult to control. The plant is particularly vulnerable if the gas reservoir is large. Secondly, all companies may not have requisite clearance from Ministry of Environment as was seen in the case of LG Chem in Vizag gas leak. Similarly, in the Assam gas leak earlier this year Oil India Limited had failed to obtain legally required clearances to operate the oil field at Baghjan. They had failed to comply with provisions of environmental laws and internal safety procedures concerning oil field drilling.

Hazardous Waste (Management Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 1989 requires industry to identify major accident hazards, take preventive measures and submit a report to the designated authorities. Also, as per Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989 the purchaser must declare complete product safety information to the authority, and must transport the chemicals under the prescribed rules. The gas leaks and plant mishaps in India has happened due to directly or indirectly violating these rules. As a consequence of this lackadaisical approach, there have mushroomed thousands of registered and hazardous factories in the unorganized sector. They are dealing with multiple hazardous materials, exposing them to potential, and serious disasters.

Further, there has emerged an attitude of inadequate infrastructure and quality control. For instance, in Vizag styrene leak case, there was a non-functional volatile organic compound (VOC) detection system at the plant. There is also presently no monitoring mechanism installed to specifically

detect styrene. Dr. Anjan Ray, the director of the Indian Institute of Petroleum, in a recommendation to the government advised to remove the organic materials from the Vizag facility immediately, else absolute disaster awaits. While the suggestion is valuable, following existing laws could have averted the situation altogether.

However, all is not lost. There is still time to back-track. Country head AES India, Mr. R Shrivastav notes:

“Bringing in specialist health and safety officers supervising installation, judiciously using safety equipment, complimented with fully operational plant safety features, along with continuous training of its staff are non-negotiable and continuous processes for the industry. Safety should be considered a legal compliance by companies.”

Thus, we must go back to mastering the basics of safety, and safety has to be made a priority among companies and the government.

If India aims to be “atmanirbhar”/self-reliant, it is important to attract investment in manufacturing in industries. It is needed that all the laws are in place and executed well concerning gas and chemical plant safety, else companies will be skeptical of investing.