The Problem With Transporting Dangerous Chemicals

dangerous goods

Transporting dangerous chemicals comes with numerous risks. In fact, accidents during transport of these substances are common though not always reported in the news. Just recently, a container vessel carrying dangerous chemicals caught fire and exploded off the coast of Colombo.

When choosing which chemicals to use for day-to-day operations, businesses must consider not only the efficacy of a product, but also the impact on the health and safety of our workers and effects on the environment.

Disastrous Consequences of Improper Shipping of Dangerous Chemicals

Isuruhetti, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Because of the very nature of dangerous chemicals, extreme caution must be taken by personnel with the highest level of expertise in order to ensure that they are transported from one location to another, whether by road, rail, air, or sea; disastrous consequences can otherwise occur. This is why an exhaustive set of regulations are in place for shipping dangerous goods, and the onus is on the shipping company to meet them.

On 20 May 2021, the container vessel MV X-Press Pearl caught fire off the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka. The ship was carrying more than a thousand containers, with contents including 25 tons of Nitric Acid, and other chemicals.

Authorities who carried out preliminary investigations suspect that a chemical reaction of the hazardous chemicals might have caused the fire. The fire raged for several days and on 25 May 2021 crew members were evacuated after an explosion occurred on the vessel.

A more thorough investigation is required to determine the exact cause of the fire and explosion in the case of the MV X-Press Pearl.

However, based on research conducted in 2011 (with data of dangerous goods shipments by sea from the U.S. and Great Britain from 1998 to 2008), it was found that 97% of incidents in the U.S. (and 94% for the U.K.) were caused by containment and packaging faults. Furthermore, 15% of container ship casualties were a result of accidents involving dangerous goods.

Factors that Contribute to Incidents

  • Improper labeling – Mislabeled chemicals can have serious implications than just sending the wrong chemicals down the supply chain. A mislabeled chemical in the wrong storage container can be lethal.
  • Improper storage – The proper storage for chemicals will depend on the kind of chemical that will be stored within. Considerations must be given as to temperature requirements, ignition control, ventilation, segregation, and identification.
  • Exhausted workers – The perils posed by accidents involving dangerous chemicals are far greater, and human error can easily occur when workers responsible for transporting and storing these substances become overworked or fatigued. Shipping companies must ensure that no employee is overworked.
  • Equipment malfunction – Properly inspecting equipment to be used for transporting hazardous chemicals is a must to reduce the likelihood of incidents.
  • Natural or man-made catastrophes – Incidents can occur that are beyond our control, such as storms, landslides, and earthquakes, or potholes, and reckless drivers. These can cause accidents that can quickly become calamitous and lead to untold damages and loss of life.

Eliminating and Reducing Chemical Hazards

In the Hierarchy of Actions in Risk Management, the very first and most effective action is to remove the hazard in order to eliminate all the risks associated with the chemical hazard. However, if this is not entirely possible, the next step would be to find a suitable substitute for it.

Due to technological advancements, there is now a wide range of low hazard, non-toxic substitutes for many common dangerous chemicals. The good news is that these safer substitutes are often as effective as, or even more effective than, their counterparts.

Chemical substitution also comes with the added benefits of reducing costs over time and ensuring compliance with workplace and environmental laws.

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