Two firemen killed, one person missing, six badly injured, 17 others hurt.
On Monday morning, an explosion that occurred while workers were repairing a supply pipe in BASF’s Ludwigshafen base had devastating consequences. It is German chemical industry‘s biggest accident in decades.
The explosion triggered fires across the port. Eyewitnesses saw flames were up to 100 meters (328 feet) high, and huge plumes of smoke. It took the fire department until Monday evening to get the fire under control.
BASF, which has close ties to the local community, immediately set up an information counter to answer any questions the local residents had.
The most common cause of accidents is human failure, such as mistakes in the operation of plant facilities, as well as material fatigue
By Tuesday, the circumstances of the accident and its effects remained unclear. The intense heat and continued danger of explosions stopped BASF experts and the public prosecutor’s office of nearby Frankenthal, which is conducting investigations into the incident, near the scene of the accident.
BASF plant manager Uwe Liebelt said a utility trench with a total of 28 pipelines leading from the port to the close-by BASF factory is sealed off.
Mr. Liebelt said the accident began at a spot where welding work was taking place on an empty propylene pipe. The work had been going on for several days, carried out by BASF employees in cooperation with an external service provider. Propylene is a basic chemical which is reprocessed by BASF in different stages and which the company produces itself in vast quantities. It is likely that above all propylene and ethylene gas were detonated in the explosion.
At a joint press conference with the Ludwigshafen fire department, BASF director Margret Suckale was unwilling to comment on the possible financial damage caused or the length of time production is likely to be interrupted.
She added however that “the interruption in the supply of raw materials is certainly a big challenge for production and logistics.”
In a letter to employees on Tuesday BASF boss Kurt Bock expressed his sympathy for the families of BASF fire department men who had lost their lives and for those who had been injured. He also emphasized the efforts the company was making with regard to safety.
“This accident has shown why safety is always of paramount importance to us,” he wrote in the letter. “We are striving hard to make our work and our processes as safe as possible. Yesterday, we experienced the reality that there is no such thing as 100 percent safety.”
But the whole incident raises questions of safety at BASF.
Just a few hours before the big fire in the northern port there had already been another, albeit less serious explosion at a BASF facility where four people were injured at the nearby Lampertheim factory.
The company had already been facing criticism about an increase in the number of recent safety-related incidents and technical problems.
These come against a background of delays in the construction of a new major plant for the plastic primary product TDI.
BASF insists its safety is not a worry. The company has come a long way since September 21, 1921, when an explosion in the BASF nitrogen factory in Oppau took the lives of 561 people. It was the greatest catastrophe in the history of BASF. Standards have improved hugely since then.
Until Monday, there had been only four fatal work-related accidents overall between 2006 and 2016, one of which was specifically related to chemicals.
Also, the number of work-related accidents resulting in workdays lost per million working hours was in decline and had reduced from three to two since 2011.
Safety standards in chemical production in general have improved considerably in the last few decades.
Since 1991, chemical companies have been obliged to report all serious accidents in their plants to the state authority responsible. That doesn’t include all glitches – only those resulting in considerable damage, or where chemicals have escaped.
There is no significant increase in the number of accidents in German chemical companies. According to the Federal Environment Agency companies reported an annual average of 23 accidents between 2001 and 2015. In the years 2013 and 2014 there was a total of 29 accidents in the chemical industry and companies closely related to the sector. 13 of those were in the malfunction category – for example, major fires or accidents involving the escape of a large volume of chemicals.
The most common cause of accidents is human failure, such as mistakes in the operation of plant facilities, as well as material fatigue. The 29 incidents in the years 2014 /15 included a total of two fatalities. 22 people were injured.
It has been years since legislators have left the safety of chemical production entirely to companies. In 1982, European companies were bound by the Seveso guideline, named after chemical accident in 1976 in the northern Italian town of Seveso, where large volumes of highly toxic dioxins escaped.
Under the guidelines, Companies working with high-risk materials have to compile regular safety reports and emergency plans. They are inspected regularly and cannot be located too close to residential and nature conservation areas.
But ultimately, nothing can offer 100 percent safey. Mr. Liebelt pointed out that the the chemical pipeline that exploded in Ludwigshafen had passed a Seveso inspection four years ago and was due another one in four months.
Siegfried Hofmann is Handelsblatt’s chemical and pharmaceutical industries correspondent. Bert-Friedrich Fröndhoff leads a team of reporters which covers the chemicals, healthcare and services industries at Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com