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Know-how

In the rst of a new series on how (the chemical precursor to Nylon-6 from
cyclohexane, allowing Nypro to compete
were damaged. The blaze that enveloped
the plant took 250 re ghters with 50 re
disasters have shaped industrial head-on with ICI and Duponts patented engines three days to contain, and res
method for making Nylon-66. By 1967, the burned for a week and a half. While the
safety worldwide, Becky Allen Flixborough plant the only one of its kind plant burned, reaction began.
in the UK was supplying caprolactam to
revisits the Nypro explosion and textiles and chemicals manufacturer Cour- Price of progress?
taulds and in 1969 Nypro announced it was Two days after the disaster, local MP John
reects on its legacy trebling capacity to 75,000 tonnes a year. Ellis told the House of Commons: The
cost in terms of grief and misery that my
28 dead constituents have had to suffer and are still
Then on Saturday 1 June 1974, events suffering on the altars of wealth and so-
BEFORE 1974, few outside North at the plant turned a little-known village called technical achievement is too high for
Lincolnshire would have heard of into a synonym for disaster. At 4.53pm, as a so-called civilised society to bear.
Flixborough. Situated on the River residents enjoyed the Appleby Frodingham Industrys in-house disasters are bad
Trents ood plain, a few miles south of steelworks childrens gala or watched the enough but when they reduce a village to
where it joins the Humber, the village had schoolboy football international on televe- rubble, put dozens of stitches in toddlers
a population of just 544 and was too small sion, the works were virtually demolished faces and frighten the wits out of people
to merit a mention in the Encyclopaedia by a massive explosion. living as far away as 20 miles the risk as-
Britannica. The blast, which was detected by sumes new dimensions, the Economist
Villagers shared the low- scientists at Leicester university almost commented. And, said a BBC TV reporter
lying land east of the Trent 250 kilometres away and later estimated filming in front of the smoking Nypro:
with a sizeable chemical as equivalent to up to 45 tonnes of TNT, Flixborough has joined the unhappy band
works. Relatively isolated blew over concrete buildings, distillation of communities who pay for other peoples
behind the Normanby Park columns and pipelines. Of the 70 staff on progress with human lives. This is the
Steelworks, the plant dis- site that weekend, 28 were killed and 36 price of Nylon. (You can see the BBCs
tinguished itself only by the injured. None of the 18 men working in the ve minute news report at www.lexisurl
odours that occasionally control room survived. Had it been a week .com/hsw5908).
drifted into surrounding ham- day, the number of fatalities at Nypro, which But what caused the disaster, and how
lets and its almost pictur- employed 553 people, would have been did events over 35 years ago shape industrial
esque nightly illumination. far greater. safety today? The answers lie in the Flixbor-
Chemic als had been It was a scene of utter devastation: cars ough inquiry and the Advisory Committee on
produced at Flixborough in the works car park were compressed to Major Hazards (ACMH), both swiftly set up
since 1937, when a succes- the size of dustbins, a neighbouring by then secretary of state for employment
sion of rms began manu- eld of wheat was sucked into the Michael Foot.
facturing fertilisers using partial vacuum created by the blast As the inquiry would nd out, on 27
c oke - oven gas from the and large pieces of the plant came March 1974, a crack had ap-
steelworks. Though some to rest in ironstone workings nearly peared in reactor number 5.
residents assumed the plant eight kilometres away. The reactors were lled with
still made fertilisers in 1974, Fifty three people off site liquid cyclohexane under pres-
it had since the late 1960s reported injuries and hundreds sure at 155 C, through which
become a linchpin of UK more patched up their own compressed air was bubbled
Nylon manufacture. cuts and bruises. Almost all to cause the reaction. The
In 19 6 4, Fi s o n s a n d homes in Flixborough, and plant was shut down and the
Dutch State Mines (DSM) nearby Amcotts and Burton
set up a joint venture, Ny- were affected, along with
pro, to produce Nylon-6. 789 in Scunthorpe, more
DSMs proc- than six kilometres away.
ess produced In all, 1821 houses and
caprolactam 167 shops and factories

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Flixborough: February 2011 health and safety at work
Know-how
reactor, one of a series of six, was removed blamed the disaster on decisions made went up to appreciate how differently
and a bypass installed to link reactor num- in March when the crack was discovered. things were done then, and the changes
bers 4 and 6. Had it been decided to strip and examine wrought by Flixborough.
the other reactors and await a report on the The explosion happened before the
Infamous dog-leg cause of the failure of reactor number 5, the Health and Safety at Work Act had its third
The 50cm diameter bypass pipe was de- plant must have remained shut down for
signed by Nypro engineers who were not several days. The design and construction
experienced in high-pressure pipework. No of the bypass assembly would not then have The disaster was caused by the
plans or calculations were produced, the been conducted as a rush job, as in fact it
pipework was not pressure tested and was was, its report said. introduction into a well designed and
mounted on temporary scaffolding, unsup- The hurried workaround, the inquiry
ported from above. Bellows were used to thought, would not have happened had a constructed plant of a modication
join the pipe to the 60cm reactor anges works engineer been on site. As it was, the
and crucially, because the gravity-assisted previous post-holder had left early in 1974 which destroyed its integrity
reactor series was built on a slope, the pipe and by June had still not been replaced.
included a dog-leg bend to accommodate The services engineer who provided cover
the change in height. was not qualied to do the job, even for a reading in parliament the tone of that
The plant was restarted but shut down short time. debate being greatly affected by the disaster
again two months later when, on 29 May, a As a result, nobody realised that the and also before the HSE was formed.
small leak was discovered on a sight glass pressurised bypass assembly would twist Debate intensied outside parliament
on a pressure vessel in the plant. Once the and buckle and ultimately fail. too, increasing public concern about a whole
leak was repaired, in the early hours of the The disaster was caused by the intro- industry. The disaster, says Kletz, cost in-
morning of 1 June, the plant started up for duction into a well designed and constructed surers 70m but, as did [the 1984] Bhopal
what would be the last time. plant of a modication which destroyed its [gas tragedy] and Seveso, Flixborough cost
According to chemical engineer Profes- integrity. The immediate lesson to be learned the chemical industry much more.
sor Tony Kletz: At 4.52pm the 50cm dog-leg is that measures must be taken to ensure Via the ACMH, which produced three
pipe and the bellows attached that the technical integrity of plant is not inuential reports between 1976 and 1984,
to it ruptured, causing the violated, the inquiry concluded. Flixborough and the 1976 Seveso disaster
entire contents of all ve Though it was outside the inquirys remit, which will be the subject of a later article
reactors to escape at sonic the report commented on the plants siting, caused a sea-change in the way hazard-
velocity to form a vast am- saying the greater the risk of disaster and ous industries operated and were regulated
mable vapour cloud the the greater the disaster which may ensue, in the UK and beyond.
size of a football pitch. the more important it is that the plant con- Two European Directives, Seveso I and
The vapours ignition cerned should be, as was Flixborough, away Seveso II, were the outcome, implemented in
less than a minute later from populated areas. It also noted that the UK as the Control of Industrial Major Ac-
resulted in an open am- had the control rooms layout cident Hazards (CIMAH) and then Con-
mable cloud explosion. been differently sited or con- trol of Major Accident Hazards
structed or both, loss of life (COMAH) Regulations.
Rush job might have been avoided.
The inquiry, whose remit
was to discover the im- The legacy
mediate causes of the More than 35 years
blast, sat for 70 days, on, it is hard for health
hearing evidence from and safety profes-
173 witnesses. sionals some of
Chaired by Roger whom were not yet
Parker QC, the inquiry born when Nypro

The price of Nylon


health and safety at work February 2011 15
Know-how
Combatting complacency
Remembering that modern health and
safety practices and legislation are the
direct result of lives lost at Flixborough and
other disasters is crucial, says HSE chair
Judith Hackitt.
O f an age when she remember s
Flixborough she was in her second
year at Imperial College London studying
chemical engineering she told HSW: I
refer to Flixborough a lot in my speeches
on disasters and learning lessons from
the past because it had a big impact on
me ... Flixborough really made me aware
of how important health and safety was
in industry.
But Flixboroughs most important les-
son lies in remembering it, because it is
only by doing so that we can avoid thinking
it couldnt happen here, she says.
Todays process safety, change man- or use safer materials instead. Inherently, For a generation who has grown up
agement and risk management techniques safer design arrived on the chemical indus- without these events, because we have got
are also rooted in Flixborough. As Kletz trys agenda. better at managing health and safety, there
points out, a more efcient process would According to Phil Wright, chief engineer is a danger of complacency.
have made Nypro safer: Flixborough de- at specialist insurers Allianz Engineer- I rmly believe that the unwise deci-
stroyed the condent feeling that we can ing: Flixborough has left us with a useful sions people make about cutting costs or
always keep large quantities of hazardous legacy of preventative work practices. We deferring maintenance are because people
chemicals under control, and therefore we no longer wait for things to go wrong, rather have got detached from the consequences
should keep the amounts of them in our we have developed techniques to minimise of things going wrong, she adds. You can
plants as low as reasonably practicable the risks posed by our workplaces. never forget that people die.

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February 2011 health and safety at work