Flixborough Anniversary Spurs Reflection

As the 40th anniversary of the U.K.’s worst mainland process plant disaster approaches, the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), Rugby, U.K., has issued a press release reflecting on the disaster and its impact.

The release notes: “The explosion at the Flixborough Nypro Chemicals site near Scunthorpe, U.K., killed 28 people and injured 36 others on 1 June 1974. It resulted in the almost complete destruction of the plant. Further afield, the blast injured another 53 people and caused extensive damage to around 2,000 buildings.”

The disaster was caused by the installation of a temporary pipe to allow production to continue while a large reactor was removed for repair. The failure of a flexible bellows next to the temporary pipe led to a massive release of boiling cyclohexane, which ignited causing the explosion, it explains.

The release then adds: “At the time there were no specific U.K. regulations to control major industrial hazards. The incident also exposed weaknesses in the understanding of hazards, the design of buildings, management systems and organization.”

“Today, 40 years later, chemical engineering undergraduates are routinely taught the lessons from Flixborough and the incident is continuing to influence safety in industries such as oil, gas, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and many other process industries.”

The release quotes Robin Turney, an IChemE Fellow, who has studied the accident and its aftermath in detail: “Flixborough has left a lasting legacy on the chemical and process industries — in the U.K., Europe and worldwide.

“The accident occurred in an era where early, but concerted efforts were being made to improve safety. Flixborough coincided with the introduction of Health and Safety at Work Act in the U.K. and spurred the development of the “European Seveso Directive” — named after an accident at a chemical manufacturing plant in Italy in 1976 — strengthening regulation further in 1982.”

Turney adds: “The past 40 years have seen many improvements in process safety through regulations, technical measures and better management. The avoidance of further disasters will require constant attention to these together with the active involvement of directors and senior managers to create an organizational ‘safety culture’ which promotes open dialogue and seeks to identify and correct weaknesses.”

CP has published several articles on establishing an effective safety culture. See, e.g., “Process Safety Begins in the Board Room,”  “Achieve Effective Process Safety Management,”  and “Make Safety Second Nature."

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