India needs an effective safety case regulatory regime. There are over 1,900 major accident hazard (MAH) control units or facilities in India. There are also thousands of registered hazardous factories, below MAH criteria.

There are numerous factories in unorganized sectors storing and handling hazardous chemicals, posing serious and complex risks to people, property and the environment. Major chemical disasters, with multiple fatalities, have occurred almost every year since the 1984 Bhopal gas leak disaster.

In addition to the loss of lives, these disasters have eroded the manufactured, human and natural capital base of the Indian economy. Flow-on, adverse impacts to the banking and finance sector are also significant. For example, insurers and underwriters can potentially become insolvent if disasters of the scale of the Bhopal gas leak were to occur.

To foster process safety excellence, India needs to re-engineer process safety governance. The re-engineered safety governance will include radical regulatory and enforcement reforms, organizational development and indigenous capacity building within the inspectorates; and an on-going safety performance monitoring of MAH units to prevent major accidents.

Regulatory reforms

India should formulate and implement a comprehensive safety case legislative framework. This is the first and foremost step towards a performance-based governance approach that ensures positive safety outcomes for the industry and the community. At present, various elements of safety are dispersed in various rules that have become antiquated when compared with current industry best practice and community expectations.

India should consolidate the intent and the principles underpinning the various Acts and rules relevant to MAH control units, and develop a self-contained and an integrated legislative framework to enforce and monitor safety performance outcomes. There are also Acts and rules promulgated by the Petroleum and Explosive Safety Organisation (PESO) and the Oil Industry Safety Directorate (OISD) that are outside the realm of MAH rules. There is a need to bring together the best elements from these Acts and rules to develop a cohesive regulatory framework.

At present, more impetus is being given to on-site and off-site emergency planning, preparedness and response. Little or no emphasis is put on hazard prevention and control. Hazard mitigative measures are often complementary to hazard prevention efforts. However, mitigation is costlier and prevention is cheaper in the long term.

MAH control rules do not explicitly consider safety management systems, while major accidents that have been occurring invariably point towards systemic failures at the facilities. Neither the current regulation nor the industry codes of practice provide sufficient clarity on risk tolerance criteria.

There is no mention of the “so far as is reasonably practicable" (SFAIRP) or the “as low as reasonably practicable" (ALARP) concept in the MAH control rules. It is absolutely essential that MAH control units should define individual and cumulative risk tolerance criteria for on-site and off-site fatality and serious injuries, and evaluate the facility risks against these criteria as part of their safety case assessment.

The MAH control rules must define what constitute a safety management system and demonstrate how its key requirements are being met.

Implementing the above reforms and measures will be critical to achieving process safety excellence in Indian MAH control units. Process safety excellence is a key differentiator to gaining competitive advantage in global markets as it can lead to consistently high quality and reliable supplies. It can also restore public confidence in safety governance and can encourage collaboration and partnership with local communities on industrial and spatial safety planning, and in the safety case approval processes.

The MAH rules prescribe a three-yearly cycle for continuous improvement and a mandatory review of the safety report. However, should a major incident occur at the MAH unit, or should there be a major industrial accident, the safety report should immediately be reviewed and reassessed.

For example, post Buncefield oil storage depot fire and post the BP Texas refinery incidents, the tank terminals and refineries in India should have reviewed their safety report and provided assurance to their regulator that sufficient control measures have been in place to prevent those types of incidents from occurring.

Need for audits

At present, the safety audits are primarily focused on occupational safety and health issues and lack sufficient technical rigour. The audit scope and methodology should be expanded to include auditing of major incident event scenarios and controls identified and assessed for each scenario.

The audits should seek evidence on performance assurance of safety controls. The performance criteria are functionality, availability, reliability, effectiveness, independence, survivability, auditability, maintainability, etc. The Code of Practice on Occupational Safety and Health Audit should be reviewed to include core elements of process safety.

At present, safety audits are being conducted either by consultants or by safety auditing cell experts. Increasingly, this capability must be internalized within the inspectorate to ensure independence and to avoid potential business bias and rent seeking. External expertise can still be made available to the industry as support services.

Investigative and technical rigour should be enhanced in the inspections that are being undertaken by the inspectorate. There should be a national capacity building programme for the inspectors in process safety, incident investigation, and auditing and inspections. Universities and professional institutions should contribute to the long-term skill development of the inspectorates. Inspectors should be trained and assessed in both soft and hard technical skills. The directorate general, Factory Advisory Service and Labour Institutes (DGFASLI) should be strengthened and effectively utilized for developing professional capabilities of the inspectorates. The Centre for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS), the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE-UK), the International Labour Institute (ILI), and other international institutions should be invited to participate and contribute alongside Indian institutions to facilitate cross-pollination and skills transfer.

Funding and benefits

Many countries have successfully implemented a “fee-for-service" model, recovering the labour and total overhead costs of delivery of regulatory services. The full cost recovery model provides more accountability to the governance structure and ensures greater economic and administrative efficiency for the regulatory and enforcement services delivered.

The inspectors’ performance should be assessed by defining and monitoring key performance indicators and continuous learning and professional development activities. Feedback on individual and team performance of the inspectors should be sought from MAH units and other stakeholders to identify and implement areas of continuous improvement.

Current accident fatality numbers are clearly not acceptable, if India wants to become a global leader in this sector. By implementing a safety case regulatory and enforcement regime, the inspectorate’s efforts will be focused to keep the occupiers honest. Ultimately, the occupiers are responsible and accountable for safe operation of their facilities.

To achieve drastic reductions in the frequency and number of major accidents, India should transform its safety regulatory system and build professional capacities within the inspectorate. As a side benefit, this will also enable its strong and vibrant chemical and petrochemical industry to become world class, both in market and safety performance.

The writer is a safety specialist based in Perth, Australia

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