How to avoid another Tianjin disaster

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Christian Friis Bach [ITU Pictures/Flickr]

Safety precautions may not make the headlines, but they are the most effective preventative against industrial accidents with hazardous materials, writes Christian Friis Bach.

Christian Friis Bach served as Special Advisor to the European Commission for the United Nations Global Sustainability Panel (2010-2011) and as Denmark’s Minister for Development Cooperation (2011-2013). He is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

The massive explosions at a chemical warehouse in Tianjin, China, on 12 August, which have reportedly killed 139 people, with 34 persons still missing, over 700 injured, 6,000 displaced and the homes of another 17,000 damaged, are a deeply tragic reminder of the permanent need to reinforce safety at industrial sites containing hazardous materials.

This accident involved chemicals that can be deadly, but which are also of great industrial importance and are therefore stored and carried in large quantities throughout the world. In order to ensure that such chemicals are handled safely, the international community created the United Nations Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods and on the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), serviced by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), to elaborate international recommendations.

The first step to ensure safety is obviously to identify the level of toxicity of chemicals. This is done by applying the GHS classification and its hazard communication system that provides users, workers and emergency responders with all the relevant information concerning the product itself, its hazards, the packaging and containers to be used for safe transport and storage, precautions to be taken and first aid. For transport, the United Nations have also assigned a specific ‘UN number’ to all dangerous goods most commonly carried and to generic groups of chemicals presenting the same hazards. This UN number, marked on packaging, containers, transport equipment and transport documentation is key to immediate emergency response in case of accidents.

The prevention of accidents at industrial sites producing or storing hazardous material also requires that information about these hazardous activities is shared with land-use planners, so that safety distances are fully respected. Accurate information must also be readily available to the public and to rescue teams, so that they can take the appropriate safety measures immediately.

In Europe, the UNECE Industrial Accidents Convention, which today counts 41 Parties, helps prevent such disasters. Parties are obliged to get operators to reduce risks and demonstrate the safe performance of hazardous activities, carrying out regular inspections and issuing licences or bans. Simulations, like the ones organised with Moldova, Romania and Ukraine in the Danube Delta region over three days earlier this month, help test and adjust response procedures.

In addition, the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers to the Aarhus Convention obliges countries to make information on releases of pollutants to air, land or water, or the transport of chemicals or waste, available to the public on the Internet. Citizens can thus check in an easy way what substances are emitted in areas where they live and work.

Reducing the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and strengthening the capacity of all countries for risk reduction will be important targets within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be adopted in New York later this month. This will require further efforts and investments in safety.

We stand ready to share the experience gathered by our networks of experts to help countries in their practical implementation of these international commitments. Transparency and prevention will be the key to achieving these ambitious goals. Prevention hardly makes news headlines, but it saves lives and avoids costly destructions. So, while it might not make the front page, prevention is the best investment against industrial accidents.

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