Tank terminal operators often tell me that they are well prepared to handle chemical emergencies. But should tank farms be so confident about their emergency response preparedness?
Before accepting to store any commodity within the boundaries of the tank farm, the safety department of the operator will usually review the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) of the product. However, I sense that many operators rely too much on the information provided on a single SDS in isolation.
This article is written by Rudi Stalmans and featured in the 2020 spring edition of Tank News International.
The bulk logistics industry is one of the most challenging sectors for chemical incidents and emergency response. Keeping inventory and transporting chemicals comes with greater danger than handling petroleum products. Preparedness to deal with potential incidents at a site where hazardous goods are being stored is crucial to the survival of the business. Tank terminals are likely to experience at least one medium-sized incident every three years.
For HSEQ managers, the priority for emergency response is to protect the wellbeing and safety of employees and the public. For them, a 24-hour level 1 emergency response helpline should be the first line of protection for people, the environment, assets, and commercial reputation. Besides this, they should implement a crisis management plan and an efficient incident notification process.
Questioning tank terminal emergency response preparedness
Many organisations are scrambling to react to a crisis in a professional manner, leaving time for dangerous and costly consequences. Time has an impact on the actions we can take during a crisis. Tank terminal operators will need to be able to react fast when the worst happens.
Tank terminals use the SDS as a first source of information to review the hazards of a product. Looking at one SDS in isolation does not provide sufficient information for incidents involving multiple products. Handling an incident will become challenging when various products start reacting with each other. A chemical can react with other commodities, but also with the road surface, or rainwater, for example.
Many tank farms show confidence in their emergency response preparedness since incidents would happen within the boundaries of the site. But what if the incident is moving outside those boundaries? Through a spill at the jetty in the sea, or vapours or smoke forming a hazardous cloud, for example. How to handle an accident involving a toxic cloud moving away from the tank terminal to a nearby village? Or how to handle a spillage going into the drinking water supply? Also, parcel tankers berthing at a tank farm could have more than 10 different commodities on board. Are these products known to the terminal operator? Tank terminal operators also rely on emergency services to assist during incidents. But what would happen if the site is cut-off.
Reporting supply chain disruptions
A crisis is a sudden event, the scale of which poses a threat to the image of products and companies. There is a potential risk to the safety of individuals and the environment with a high chance of negative media attention. Effective notification enables operators to react quickly and take key steps, such as alerting the crisis management team and initiating business continuity arrangements.
One incident could also disrupt the supply chain of many companies that have a relation with the tank farm, including clients, trucking companies, ship owners, and other parties. Liaison with all those connections in a time of crisis needs to be prompt and efficient. A large tank terminal, where there could be as many as 50 customers, could find this challenging.
Relying on customers and authorities
All emergency telephone numbers provided in the SDS of the products and commercial contracts may need to be called during an incident. Those emergency numbers are often not tested, and not answered by emergency response professionals. Often the emergency number is the mobile number of a sales manager or fixed line of a receptionist. An emergency number must be available 24/7 and give immediate access to professional advice. With many overseas clients support may also involve communication in foreign languages.
Tank terminals also rely on local authorities such as fire brigades, but these authorities are not always qualified to handle a specific emergency. Terminals should, therefore, question their level of confidence in them, especially in developing markets.
Four steps to get it right
Firstly, operators should start by prioritising the most hazardous goods at the site. They should keep detailed inventories that also should be known to local authorities.
Secondly, using trained professional emergency responders to get advice is recommended. What if the incident started at a neighbouring site? What if the reported spill is rainwater under a parked tank container? What if someone at the site of the incident reports the wrong symptoms? Professional responders are trained to process information and give appropriate advice. One important technique these experts master is the use of questions and challenges. There is also a difference between reading information from an SDS and real advice from an expert.
Thirdly, proportional advice is important. Interruptions caused by confusion over how to respond or an overestimation of the potential hazards can leave a business open to risks and involve unnecessary cost. Proportional advice to the scale of the incident is therefore needed.
Finally, does an operator want to be responsible for making decisions in an event where there is a risk of environmental damage? Maybe not. Tank terminals should consider the impact of making decisions in an emergency. Relying on the support of a professional emergency response service to make decisions could be a wise strategy.
Emergency response preparedness – conclusion
Companies involved in chemical and hazardous goods supply chains have to put in place a solid chemical emergency response plan. In an emergency, knowing what to do and how to respond is crucial. Having access to great internal expertise, many of the largest oil, chemical and logistics companies prefer to outsource their level 1 emergency response helpline to professional companies. Since the tank terminal industry does not often do this, I suggest all operators start a critical review of their current emergency response preparedness based on the remarks in my article.
You may also like our article: Emergency Response For The Bulk Logistics & Transport Sector.
Photo Credit: Rudigerstal