What were the lessons learned from the Bangladesh container explosion?

Shortcuts could lead to catastrophic consequences, expert says

What were the lessons learned from the Bangladesh container explosion?

Insurance News

By Gabriel Olano

Earlier this month, a fire engulfed a container depot in southeastern Bangladesh, killing at least 49 people and injuring more than 300. The huge loss of life and property highlighted the importance of proper labelling, storing and handling of cargo, whether at sea or on land.

The fire, which began on the night of June 4, took three days to be put under control, according to news reports. Authorities suspect that the cause of the fire was an explosion at a container of hydrogen peroxide. They also noted that the depot did not follow basic fire safety measures, with only a handful of fire extinguishers despite the facility storing dozens of containers containing flammable and combustible materials such as chemicals and clothing. Toxic fumes and explosions were some of the major hazards faced by responders, with at least nine firefighters losing their lives. Residents said the initial blast was so strong that they felt the ground shake and that some glass windows in neighbouring buildings were shattered.

According to Allianz’s 2022 Safety and Shipping Review, fire/explosion was the third-highest cause of marine loss incidents, with 178 recorded in 2021 – a 10% increase from the previous year.

Miguel Herrera (pictured above), senior marine risk consultant at Allianz Risk Consulting, said there should be a holistic approach towards fire/explosion risks, involving the entire supply chain, such as manufacturers, shippers, transportation carriers, terminals, storage facilities and government agencies.

“Proper cargo declaration, training, fire-detection and fire-fighting systems, emergency response plans and drills, hazardous stowage and segregation, are often key factors that will prevent incidents such as the Bangladesh container depot explosion,” Herrera told Corporate Risk and Insurance.

However, the current supply chain crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine, have caused fire security measures to slip.

“With the pressure and need to produce and deliver supplies as a result of the bottleneck crisis, the supply chain may be unintendedly taking shortcuts in their processes, resulting in additional risks,” Herrera said. “Furthermore, the labour shortages related to COVID-19 often lead to hiring less experienced personnel.”

Herrera said that undeclared or misdeclared cargo has led to many catastrophic incidents. Thus, all stakeholders must ensure proper declaration of cargo. This includes hazardous compliance on the manifest, proper labels and placarding, and correct methods of stowage and securing.

Proper training on fire-fighting is a must among all personnel, including a wide range of scenarios from day-to-day operations up to extreme cases, such as an explosion or fire event, Herrera said. Businesses should also invest in fire-detection and fire-fighting systems, formulate emergency response plans and conduct drills in cooperation with local authorities.

He also stressed the importance of correct hazardous stowage and segregation within the container depot, especially special stowage instructions such as “Protected from sources of heat”.

“It is often thought that an explosion only comes from hazardous Class 1 (explosives), but there are other hazardous classes that could produce an explosion,” Herrera said. “There are early suggestions of hydrogen peroxide (a Class 5.1 oxidizer) containers in connection with this occurrence, but it will take time until the results of the investigation are known.

In light of this incident, property owners and insurers must conduct workforce audits to find out which areas of fire risk management are lacking and respond with enhanced training as needed.

“The focus should be on strictly following all the local and international regulations applicable as well as the industry standards, to create and promote a safe culture within your organisation,” Herrera said. “Some examples are ongoing training on all aspects (hazardous, safety, emergency responses, operations), random inspections of containers to check for proper documentation, stowage and securing, additionally, frequent inspections to check the fire-detection and fire-fighting systems' functionality and capabilities.”

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