The remarkable industrial growth of Bangladesh is not a hype anymore. The country's industrial footprints are continuously expanding beyond the conventional light industries to medium and heavy industries.
In the last 10 years, the number of petrochemical industries increased from 10 to 40. Petrochemical industries are only one of the many industries where chemicals are stored and used in production purposes.
Expanding chemical industry: Businesses imported chemicals worth Tk 175.48 billion in 2017-18 which was only Tk 61.03 billion in 2007-08, according to Bangladesh Bank Data. The import of chemicals has been rising on an average rate of 12 per cent for the last couple of years. Chemicals are used in large scale in many industries, including pesticides, textiles, leather, pharmaceuticals, paints, fertilizers, foot wares etc.
Such large-scale use of chemicals in industries has created a new kind of challenge for the country. Lack of regulations, standard operational practices, rigorous monitoring and adaptation of safety protocols and technologies, may lead to catastrophic disasters at any time. The incident that happened at the BM container depo could be repeated at some other place if immediate and drastic actions are not taken by the relevant organisations.
Lacking proper chemical management: Hazardous chemicals are one of the most critical materials to deal with and across the globe. There have been numerous incidents which have taken thousands of lives and caused significant damage to the environment. These painstaking learnings, led the industries, regulatory bodies and other stakeholders to make stringent safety protocols, standard operating procedures and even laws in many cases to ensure the safety of people, property and the environment.
These practices are regularly implemented, evaluated and monitored in developed countries. But for a country like Bangladesh, which is still in the first phase of its industrial journey, the situation is different. The regulatory bodies themselves lack necessary knowledge and resources to provide the right guidelines to the industries in many cases. Even for the existing regulations, there are no proper monitoring systems in place that can ensure compliance.
Indifference of the owners: It is to be noted that nowhere in the world any safety regulations are proactively implemented by the industries at the initial phase. As in most cases, implementing those practices has an impact on the production cost. Hence, across all industries, business leaders remain indifferent to implementing those despite knowing the safety benefits.
In Bangladesh Department of Inspection of Factories and Establishment, the Department of Environment, the Department of Explosives, Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense, Bangladesh Customs and Port Authorities are the major stakeholders in this aspect.
Unfortunately, there is indeed no comprehensive guideline for the industries on the usage of chemicals. In some cases, different departments have different regulations creating more ambiguity. Though in 2022, the Ministry of Commerce has taken an initiative to prepare a National Chemical Management Guideline with support from the German development agency GIZ (Gesellschaft fur International Zusammmernarbeit), that is still in the development phase.
In the BM Depot incident, major deviations from the safety standards were found. Hydrogen peroxide was not stored within the secured and segregated perimeter. All chemical containers must have the materials specification description along with a material safety data sheet (MSDS). That was not the case there. There was no secondary containment facility that would have restricted the chemicals from directly going to the surrounding environment if any incident occurs.
The breathing or venting ports used to store chemicals which have an oxidizing nature and are critical components of preventing an explosion were not assessed and properly used as per global practices. The concentration of the hydrogen peroxide was relatively higher (60 per cent) in the case of the BM Depot incident and berating or venting ports had to be designed in line with that.
At any chemical storage yard or warehouse, areas such as explosion zone and hot zone must be created, carrying proper signs to help ensure the evacuation of people and assist the emergency response team. Unfortunately, there was no such thing in practice. Even they did not have any emergency response procedure in place. There was no primary emergency response team at the site that could contain the impact of the explosion before the fire service team reached the site.
Missing so many safeguards at a chemical storage depot, signifies the lack of regulations, monitoring and standard operational practices.
The way forward: Thoroughly assessing established guidelines, implementing those guidelines at the ground level and continuously validating them can bring effective safety outcomes. Bangladesh needs to focus on all three aspects simultaneously. The regulatory bodies need to reassess the situation and come up with a set of guidelines for the industries that are the major stakeholders. The industry management must focus on implementing those guidelines at their industries at every level.
A third-party verification in the form of regular audits must be in place to monitor and validate the ground. Risk management plan, emergency response plan, hazardous material handling procedure, HAZOP (Hazard and operability analysis) process safety considerations are the major initiatives that had to be addressed within the framework.
While synchronizing these efforts, the authorities should incorporate global bodies like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), ECHA (European Chemical Agency), SCHC (Society for Chemical Hazzard Communication) etc. to take the advantage of the already established protocols and safety practices across the world. To create a better tomorrow, industrial growth is the key for Bangladesh; the country also needs sincere effort from the relevant stakeholders to ensure a safer tomorrow.