Nobody takes the blame in major accidents

BUET professor Syeda Sultana Razia talks to Prothom Alo about the risk factors of explosion and fire accident.

Syeda Sultana RaziaCollected

Q :

There have been three terrible explosions at Dhaka and Chattogram within a span of just four days (4-7 March). In case of the two explosions in Dhaka, it is initially being said that the explosion occurred from accumulated gas. How can people understand that gas is accumulating inside their homes, creating a risk of explosion?

According to the fire service records, more than 3,000 fire accidents occur in Dhaka city every year. In other words, there are about 10 fire accidents in the capital every day. If gas, LPG (liquefied natural gas) or flammable chemicals come into contact with the fire in any of these fire accidents, it can turn into an explosion.

Gas explosions in homes occur in developed countries as well. But they have reduced the number of accidents through public awareness, regular inspection and repairing gas connections as well as having regular fire drills.

There isn’t constant gas flow in the gas connections provided to homes here. So, some just leave their stoves on. This can result in gas being accumulated inside the kitchen when gas supply resumes. Besides, often there’s gas leakage at the gas line riser. Plus, underground gas pipelines can be damaged from digging and gas can leak into the sewerage lines from there. If only a few hundred grams of gas accumulates inside a medium-sized kitchen for any of these reasons, there can be an explosion powerful enough to make several adjacent rooms collapse.

Earlier, a chemical named Mercaptan used to be mixed with natural gas, so it could be sniffed if there was a gas leakage. Nowadays, there’s no odour in the gas. And Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company knows better as to why this chemical isn’t added to the gas anymore.

The presence of gas can be detected with gas detectors (device to detect gas leakage in the pipeline) also. It’s very important for the respective authorities to identify faults in gas connection lines using this device. If there’s any suspected gas leakage at home, authorities have to be notified after quickly turning off the riser key. If there’s an emergency situation, turn off the riser and call an expert technician to quickly repair the gas leakage. Soapy water can be used to test whether the leakage has been mended properly or not. If the damaged spot has been repaired well there won’t be any bubbles when you pour soapy water there.

Q :

People in the country are used to casualties in massive explosions at factories. Now, there are explosions even at crowded marketplaces. How should the public be conscious and alert in this situation?

We have witnessed fire accidents and explosions in both residential and non-residential areas of the Old and New Dhaka. This situation shows that there’s a lack of public awareness when it comes to fire prevention and fire management.

There’s no fire drill in most of the high-rise buildings. Even if fire extinguishers are there, there are an inadequate number of people who can operate these. Often it’s found that the fire exit system doesn’t work. Different types of flammable materials are used for decorating homes.

Government initiative alone isn’t enough to make people aware of combatting fire risks. In this situation, non-government organisations should also come forward to mobilise public awareness.

Q :

After the explosion at the oxygen plant in Chattogram’s Sitakunda, the explosives department couldn’t confirm even 24 hours later if the factory had renewed its explosives license or not.

To set up any sort of factory in Bangladesh, licenses have to be collected from 14 to 20 government agencies. Different development authorities, for example Bangladesh Investment Development Authority, Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority, Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority, Bangladesh Hi-Tech Park Authority, have introduced one-stop services, where investors submit all necessary documents at one place and receive all necessary clearances from there.

All information is stored and traceable online. If one-stop service is introduced for all investors apart from just these four authorities, it will increase transparency in issues like providing information and receiving clearance.

Q :

Following the terrible fire at a chemical warehouse in Old Dhaka’s Nimtoli in June 2010, there was a lot of discussion on relocating chemical warehouses. But the reality even after 12 years is that chemical warehouses haven’t been removed from Old Dhaka. There was again a buzz on the issue after the fire incident at Chawkbazar’s Churihatta in February 2019. While the government fixed a spot for setting up a chemical zone and took up a project also, why couldn’t they finish the task even after so many years?

That is my question too. It appears from this delay that the issue of preventing chemical accidents isn’t on the national priority list. Alongside the labour law being amended to ensure safety in the readymade garments sector, we have seen alertness among concerned authorities as well as entrepreneurs of the sector after the Rana Plaza incident. As a result, the number of accidents in the garment sector has reduced considerably.

A considerable lack of coordination and initiative can be noticed between concerned government authorities (eg: explosives department, commerce ministry, industries ministry and the city corporation) and businessmen of this sector about preventing chemical accidents.

Q :

It’s not like there’s high risk of fire accidents and explosions only at factories and industries sector now. How should be the monitoring of government agencies under a situation like this? Besides, is it possible to keep the neighbourhood safe by giving opportunity to set up factories, business or warehouses of flammable substances in a residential area?

There are rules of setting up chemical warehouses or factories at a safe distance from surrounding residential areas. Apart from this, many safety measures have to be taken in chemical management and in operating such factories, which aren’t there in the guidelines of our country.

Various government authorities only partly supervise the issue of chemical safety, so nobody wants to take the blame if there’s any major accident. Just as it’s true in case of chemical fires, the same applies for other explosions or fires as well.

I wish to point out that there’s high damage risk if a fire or explosion is caused by chemicals. Therefore, it’s very important to form a National Chemical Committee in the country to avoid chemical accidents and to ensure order and proper management in this sector. The committee will coordinate all the concerned agencies as well as make necessary guidelines for safe chemical management. All the concerned investors will have to register under the guidelines. As a result, an integrated database of the list, quantity and location of dangerous chemicals will be created and it will play key role in the planning of land use, emergency procedure and ensuring chemical safety above all.

Q :

The issue of inadequate monitoring, mismanagement and irresponsibility on the part of government agencies comes to the limelight only after a major accident. Will this situation keep going year after year?

Government agencies lack an adequate and skilled workforce as well as equipment. Mismanagement and shortfalls can be noticed in various areas.. Though unfortunate it’s true that we don't see any attempts to overcome these shortcomings.

Then again, whenever there’s an accident we become busy with finding and punishing the responsible person rather than identifying and resolving the actual cause of the accident. As a result, similar accidents are repeated.