The lasting impact of Buncefield 10 years on

Ten years ago the UK experienced its biggest peacetime explosion since the Second World War. It was the morning of 11th December 2005 when a huge blast tore through the Buncefield fuel depot in Hemel Hempstead.

Shortly after 6am a vapour cloud from an overflowing petrol tank ignited, exploding and setting off more blasts across 20 large storage tanks at the site. The explosion, which measured 2.4 on the Richter scale, was heard as far away as the Netherlands.

Whilst 40 people were injured, there were no fatalities. Significant damage did however occur to both commercial and residential properties in the vicinity. The fire burned for several days, leaving much of south-east England engulfed in smoke.

Ten years on, what has been the lasting impact?

Buncefield and subsequent investigations underscored the need for robust process safety management systems. The emergent idea is that major incidents will always be a reality of high hazard sites until boardrooms start to mitigate risks through process safety management.

Health and Safety Executive chair, Judith Hackitt, said as much earlier in 2015. Whilst industry had made a “great deal of progress”, boardrooms needed to take a lead in ensuring good process safety practices across their high hazard sites.

“We need to change the mindset at the top of organisations starting with the boardroom,” she said.“

And indeed, ten years on, a culture change is now afoot. From boardrooms to operators, from legislators to regulators, though to safety trainers, process safety is the accepted barrier between casualties, environmental damage, loss of assets and reputation.

But, as Ms Hackitt cautions, we’re “only at the beginning” of this seismic shift in the approach to industrial safety.

What is process safety? Watch this video guide

COMAH Strategic Forum

To help ensure that accidents on the scale of the Buncefield explosion never happen again, the COMAH Strategic Forum produced a short report. Writ large within the pages of this document are indicators as to the steps the bulk petroleum storage sector and other major hazard industries have taken and continue to take.

Key highlights from the report include:

  • The lessons from Buncefield have led to significant improvements in the way major hazard sites operate. Not just in terms of technical controls but also in the management of and leadership in these businesses.
  • The Process Safety Principles make it clear that positive process safety leadership is at the core of managing a major hazard business, and require board level involvement and competence.
  • Buncefield was also a significant instigator of more collaborative working between industry, trade unions and the regulator, and the report highlights the value of this approach as a means of pooling experience and insights to promote and secure more effective management of major hazard risks.

Download COMAH Strategic Forum’s full report

Planning for a safer tomorrow, today

Whilst safety standards have significantly improved in the industrial sector, the potential of major incidents remain a thing of the present, rather than the past.

Insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It is to be welcomed then that industry as a whole is asking: why does history have such an unhealthy habit of repeating itself?

Buncefield resides a stark reminder on the horizon of recent history that prevention and mitigation cannot be taken for granted. The discerning leader must always seek to understand the greatest vulnerabilities in their processes. When the stakes are so high on these high hazard sites, reactive thinking will never suffice.

Several enquiries into Buncefield confirm this. Among their range of recommendations include calls for:

  • Improved leadership and focus on process safety
  • Wider focus on training and competency
  • Improved equipment and maintenance requirements
  • Better communication both on and off site
  • Increased development on process safety leading and lagging indicators

As the HSE’s Ms Hackitt notes, boards who do not focus on process safety have a “very serious gap” in their corporate risk register and are “potentially taking a gamble with the survival of their business”.

Buncefield explosion – eyewitness account

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