The explosion at a fertiliser plant in West, Texas last month was a stark reminder of the dangers industrial workers face – and contain – every day. Details of the cause of the explosion in Texas were not available at the time of writing; such an investigation will take weeks – possibly months – as firefighters comb the wreckage for clues. One report, however, has speculated that a failed pressure release valve might be at the root of the problem. Pressure in the ammonia tank, heated by the fire, should never have been allowed to build as it did, ultimately causing the enormous explosion that left 14 people dead and at least 200 injured. Whatever the cause, questions will be asked – just as they would be at a cement plant. Why did the valve fail? Why did no one notice it was failing? What could have been done to prevent the fire, the explosion, the fatalities?
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At the recent IEEE-IAS/PCA Conference in Orlando, Florida, a comment was made to the effect that some US cement producers have been neglecting maintenance work because of the current environmental and economic conditions. Given the dangerous nature of the cement production process, a failure to address maintenance concerns is a failure to address safety. Another topic high on the conference agenda was training. Skills shortages are a massive problem in the US – and worldwide (see the Editor’s Comment, March 2013). It’s a combination of an ageing workforce, the difficult economic environment – which has resulted in a massive loss of talent through ‘restructuring’ programmes – and a lack of newcomers to the industry. If plants are operating with under-skilled or insufficient staff, performance will obviously suffer. So will safety. In an industry this size, already facing a less than positive public profile, safety failures cannot simply be absorbed into the ether of ‘these things happen’. From both a personal and business perspective, a safety breach is unacceptable. Zero harm is the only goal. Of course, this isn’t news, but when you have been working the same job for a while it is easy to let complacency take hold and safety can slip from consciousness. Safety posters fade into the background, safety talks blur into meaninglessness, and horror stories become just that: stories. How can we make sure that this doesn’t happen? I would love for you to share your ideas, your philosophies and whatever is working for you on our LinkedIn page. Find it through our website at www.worldcement.com. The cement industry has long been a leader in innovation; let’s make it a safety leader, too.