A steady camera captures the flicker of a distant fire. From the cameraman’s view over an industrial landscape, the fire looks more like a candle than the truth. Scattered bursts of confused conversation fill the muffled soundtrack of the camera’s recording. Twenty-two seconds after the recording begins, the seedling of fire flashes, like lightning, into a mushroom of red and black. The shock is clear as the cameraman’s once steady footage now trembles uncontrollably. Thirty seconds in, the distance from danger shrinks to nothing when the ground roars and the windows shatter in front of the camera. The low-pitched murmurs of bewildered chat turn to high-pitched yelps of fear. The footage blurs as the cameraman and his colleagues run for their lives. They stand together, all dressed in hazard suits and hard hats. Behind yellow muster point lines, they await their fate. Just thirty-nine seconds have passed. The video stops. The fire rages on.
A second camera sees the same fire from the other side. It’s much closer to the blaze than the first recording. In a blink, an amorphous core of bright orange light explodes into a cloud of black smoke. The blast is ferocious and merciless. The silent hiss from the video mic mutes the full force of this terrible explosion.
Further from the fire, the aftermath of the accident is told by a third camera. A video pans to a young boy, his face scratched and reddened by debris from the explosion. His ear bleeds quietly, his expression is near emotionless. The nearby sobs of a little girl ring as loud as the blast. Her yellow coat becomes soaked in the damp redness of her own blood.
These three videos gave a sobering insight into a recent chemical manufacturing disaster in China. On 21st March, 2019, safety lapses at the Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical Company led to a massive chemical eruption, purportedly from ignition of a benzene storage tank. The disaster killed 78 people and injured more than 600 others. The resulting pollution from the blast was measurable three kilometres downwind. The videos were posted anonymously on Twitter. Through fear, shame, or other motive we’ll never know, the three videos remain uncredited.
The leaked and ownerless videos of this particular chemical accident offer only a small window on over 180 large-scale safety-related chemical disasters reported worldwide since 2009.
Safety in Chemical Manufacturing is more than a theme. It is more than a damaged reputation, more than a loss of production, more than any lawsuit, more, even, than the joint liability of incident culprit and customer. Safety is our unending responsibility to stop a boy being stunned into emotionless silence, and to stop a girl crying over the sight of her own blood. It is our privilege to stop 600 people from ever being hurt by our hand. Safety prevents 78 families from being told their loved ones are never coming home.
So, how can you stand for Safety?
Dr Marc Reid is a PhD chemist, academic research leader, and safety entrepreneur based in Glasgow, Scotland.
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