“Eighty thousand pounds of muscle, blood, and steel in a pile. It’s spectacular.”  — Gary Williams

No plant in the chemical process industries wants to make the national news. The local news, where the plant’s scholarships for high school students is covered? Sure. But the national news? The only things that get national coverage are fires, explosions, and toxic releases.

Fires, explosions, and toxic releases at the plant can be frustrating and heartbreaking. However, they are within the control of plant personnel. When a fire, explosion, or toxic release happens after the hazardous materials have left the plant, they are no longer under the control of plant personnel. In fact, most local authorities are quite jealous of their jurisdictions and often don’t allow and don’t want input from plant personnel, regardless of how well informed and prepared the plant personnel are, or how uninformed or unprepared the local authorities are.

Sadly, though, the news media don’t make distinctions between hazardous releases within and under the control of the plant, and hazardous releases that happen after a shipment has left the plant. When a headline screams Chemical Spill on I-55 Leads to Fire and Evacuations, the public isn’t thinking, “The trucking industry just can’t operate safely.” No, they’re thinking, “The chemical industry is sending these dangerous chemicals through our community.”


A Recent Incident

During a recent PHA, radios began squawking and everyone suddenly became riveted to their computer screens. Just as suddenly, they were up and scrambling. A guest asked, “What’s going on?” Someone turned to them before leaving and said, “A loaded tank truck missed the new turn about a half a mile down the road from the plant and rolled.”

When the PHA eventually resumed, everyone learned that there had been no loss of containment and because he was buckled in, the driver wasn’t hurt when the truck rolled. The HazMat team from the local fire department showed up and took command of the incident, dismissing most of the plant personnel who had assembled to help.

Fortunately, the plant had the types of sensors necessary to monitor air quality for the presence and concentration of the hazardous material and had already discovered that. there was no loss of containment.

The fire department HazMat team begin spraying the trailer with water. Being the middle of summer, the water wasn’t particularly cool, so it had the effect of warming the load. The vapor pressure inside the tanker increased, but as luck would have it the relief valve never lifted. However, the water turned the hard-packed ground around the rolled truck into a muddy mess. When the tow trucks arrived to right the rolled rig, they too became mired in the muck.

After several hours, the tank truck righted, the load transferred into an empty trailer and hauled away, and the truck involved in the incident towed away, authorities opened the road, allowing people to use it to leave the plant instead of detouring several miles out of their way.


It would be easy to place blame for this incident on the driver. After all, drivers are responsible for maintaining control of their vehicles, and it was the vehicle he was driving that rolled as it rounded a corner. But it isn’t helpful to blame the driver. Blaming the driver doesn’t do anything to prevent reoccurrence of the incident. There will be other loads and other drivers, and the turn will still be there.

There is going to be a strong temptation to fire the driver. That’s how blame works. If someone is to blame, then we expect that person to be punished. Again, how will blaming and punishing the driver prevent reoccurrence of the incident. By setting an example of the driver? New drivers, hauling new loads, aren’t going to have that example in front of them.

All incidents should be an opportunity to learn. This particular incident was an expensive lesson, although it could have been worse. The one to learn the most will be the driver whose truck rolled. If the driver is fired, the lesson will still have to be paid for, but much of the benefit of the lesson will be lost to the driver’s next employer, who didn’t pay for it. If the driver is to be fired, it should be because he is an irredeemably bad driver, not because he didn’t respond correctly to a specific road condition, an error he is far less likely to make again.

First Response

Some personnel from the plant were unhappy with the response from the local fire department’s HazMat team. The recovery effort was hindered by the mire created by the water that the fire department sprayed on the truck. Because there was no loss of containment, plant personnel advised the HazMat team to hold off on the water spray unless a leak developed. They were upset at being ignored by the incident commander from the HazMat team.

Unfortunately, HazMat teams have very few tools with which to respond. Chief among these are water and foam. Fortunately, the hazardous material in this incident was only mildly reactive with water. Had it been more reactive, the HazMat team’s go-to tool, water, would have made the problem worse.

Conflicts between the leadership of different groups is as old as groups themselves. Conflicts occur between government agencies, between groups in the public and private sectors, and between agencies and public and private groups. In part, the conflict occurs because these various groups have different priorities. In greater part, though, the conflict is the result of being led by people, who are imperfect.

Resolving conflict between leaders and groups is complex. If it were easy, we would have world peace and live in utopia. We don’t. It is fair to say, though, that frequent planning sessions between the plant personnel and the HazMat team personnel help. The time to plan for an incident is before the incident occurs, even knowing that the plan must change during the incident. Dwight Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Responding to an Incident

We should keep in mind that the word “responsibility” isn’t about who is to blame, but who is to respond. The purpose of the first response is to minimize the impact severity of an incident that has already happened. The purpose of the ultimate response is to reduce the likelihood of a reoccurrence of the incident, and to a lesser extent, to reduce the potential impact severity of such an incident were it to reoccur.

The factors of this incident include the skill and ability of the driver to haul a tank truck, the training and skill of the HazMat team, and the design of the road. If plant personnel have no control over any of these factors, then there is little they can do to respond.

However, they do have some control. They can instruct drivers on the immediate hazard of the turn at the time they can pick up a load. They can make a concerted effort to work with the HazMat team to improve their understanding of the materials at the plant and those shipped to and from the plant. They can work with authorities to improve the design of the turn, or at least to improve the warnings of the hazards of the road.

Now is the Time

Federal regulations require that every workplace have emergency action plans. The requirement includes plans for the kinds of process safety incidents—fires, explosions, and toxic releases—that may occur in the workplace. They do not require that workplaces develop emergency action plans for incidents that may be related to the workplace but occur beyond the fence line.

Society’s expectations, however, are more demanding. Society, and the news media as its representative, is going to associate a release that occurs on the way to your facility with your facility. Likewise, society is going to associate a release of your product after it leaves your facility with your facility.

You need to plan accordingly.


  • Mike Schmidt

    With a career in the CPI that began in 1977 with Union Carbide, Mike was profoundly impacted by the 1984 tragedy in Bhopal and has been working on process safety ever since.