Use of chemicals and future challenges

Bangladesh’s remarkable industrial growth is no longer hype. The country’s industrial footprints are continuously expanding beyond conventional light industries towards medium and heavy industries.

Over the past 10 years, the number of petrochemical industries has grown from 10 to 40. Petrochemical industries are just one of many industries where chemicals are stored and used for production purposes.

Expansion of chemical industry: Companies imported chemicals worth 175.48 billion taka in 2017-2018, compared to only 61.03 billion taka in 2007-08, according to Bangladesh Bank Data. The import of chemicals has increased at an average rate of 12% over the past two years. Chemicals are used on a large scale in many industries, including pesticides, textiles, leather, pharmaceuticals, paints, fertilizers, footwear, etc.

Such large-scale use of chemicals in industries has created a new kind of challenge for the country. The lack of regulation, standard operating practices, rigorous monitoring and adaptation of security protocols and technologies can lead to catastrophic disasters at any time. The incident that occurred at the BM container depot could be repeated at another location if immediate and drastic action is not taken by the organizations concerned.

Lack of proper chemical management: Hazardous chemicals are one of the most critical materials to deal with and across the globe. There have been numerous incidents that have claimed the lives of thousands of people and caused significant damage to the environment. These careful learnings have led industries, regulators and other stakeholders to develop rigorous security protocols, standard operating procedures and even laws in many cases to ensure the safety of people, property and of the environment.

These practices are regularly implemented, evaluated and monitored in developed countries. But for a country like Bangladesh, which is still in the first phase of its industrial journey, the situation is different. Regulators themselves lack the knowledge and resources to provide the right guidance to industries in many cases. Even for existing regulations, there are no proper monitoring systems in place that can ensure compliance.

Indifference of Owners: It should be noted that nowhere in the world are safety regulations proactively implemented by industries in the initial phase. As in most cases, the implementation of these practices has an impact on the cost of production. As a result, across industries, business leaders remain indifferent to their implementation despite knowing the security benefits.

In Bangladesh, Department of Factory and Establishment Inspection, Department of Environment, Department of Explosives, Bangladesh Fire and Civil Defense Service, Bangladesh Customs and Port Authority are the main stakeholders in this regard.

Unfortunately, there are indeed no comprehensive guidelines for industries on the use of chemicals. In some cases, different departments have different regulations creating more ambiguity. Although in 2022 the Ministry of Trade took the initiative to prepare a national directive on the management of chemicals with the support of the German development agency GIZ (Gesellschaft fur International Zusammmernarbeit), which is still in the process of development.

During the BM Depot incident, major deviations from safety standards were observed. Hydrogen peroxide was not stored within the secure and separate perimeter. All chemical containers must have the description of the material specifications as well as a material safety data sheet (MSDS). That was not the case there. There were no secondary containment facilities that would have prevented the chemicals from going directly into the surrounding environment in the event of an incident.

Breathing or venting ports used to store chemicals which have an oxidizing nature and which are essential components for the prevention of an explosion have not been evaluated and properly used in accordance with worldwide practices. The hydrogen peroxide concentration was relatively higher (60%) in the case of the BM Depot incident and the vents or vents had to be designed accordingly.

In any chemical storage yard or warehouse, areas such as an explosion zone and a hot zone should be created, bearing appropriate signs to help ensure the evacuation of people and to assist the response team emergency. Unfortunately, this did not exist in practice. Even they had no emergency response procedures in place. There was no primary emergency response team at the site who could have contained the impact of the explosion before the fire crew reached the site.

The absence of so many safeguards in a chemical storage depot means the absence of regulation, oversight and standard operating practices.

The way forward: Thorough evaluation of established guidelines, implementation of those guidelines in the field, and ongoing validation can yield effective safety outcomes. Bangladesh must focus on all three aspects simultaneously. Regulators need to reassess the situation and come up with a set of guidelines for industries that are key stakeholders. Industry management should focus on implementing these guidelines in their industries at all levels.

Third party verification in the form of regular audits should be in place to monitor and validate the field. Risk Management Plan, Emergency Response Plan, Hazardous Materials Handling Procedure, HAZOP process safety considerations (Hazard and Operability Analysis) are the main initiatives that had to be addressed in the framework of.

While synchronizing these efforts, authorities should integrate global bodies like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), ECHA (European Chemical Agency), SCHC (Society for Chemical Hazard Communication) etc. to leverage already established security protocols and practices. worldwide. To create a better future, industrial growth is key for Bangladesh; the country also needs sincere efforts from relevant stakeholders to ensure a more secure future.

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