AIChE: Beware the Black Swan

Tuesday, April 12, 2016 @ 06:04 PM gHale


By Gregory Hale
How can you predict the unpredictable? While that may seem like a question for a philosophy class, there is a basis of reality to it as safety professionals need to tackle issues that arise that could lead to a disaster.

That is what a Black Swan is all about. “A Black Swan is an unpredicted event that is rare and unpredictable,” said John Murphy, a safety professional with Process Safety Services and formerly with Dow Chemical, during his talk Monday at the 2016 AIChE Spring Meeting and 12th Global Congress on Process Safety entitled, “Surviving the Black Swan, Strategies for Process Safety Specialists and Companies to Survive Unpredictable Catastrophic Events.”

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“Black Swans lie outside the realm of regular expectations and carry extreme impact,” he said. “They are unpredictable, but after analysis, they become more predictable.”

“Some individuals and companies survive Black Swan events and continue on while others do not. I have learned that many Black Swan events, although initially viewed as catastrophes, can result in opportunities from a process safety improvement, career, and personal perspective.

One such case was the Dow Chemical incident in Freeport, Texas.

On December 12, 1966 at the Dow Chemical Co. in Freeport, two operators and a truck driver died when propargyl bromide and chloropicrin ended up blended with a mixture of dichloropropane and dichlorpropene in a tank car when one tank car exploded causing another tank car to explode.

The combined explosions left a crater 87 feet long by 60 feet wide and 11 feet deep. Officials estimated the energy released was between 5.5 and 14 tons of TNT.

The technical cause of the incident was the mixing of chemicals in equipment not designed for the process and likely a pump running dry and hot.

“Dow survived this Black Swan because it determined that a root cause of the incident was a lack of a management system that required all new chemistry and changes to chemistry end up reviewed for reactive hazards and appropriate safeguards be implemented to prevent incidents,” Murphy said. “Dow’s Board of Directors at the time established the Reactive Chemical Program which addressed this issue to prevent future incidents. The program is part of the Dow Chemical’s process safety program and continues to have support by top management demonstrating Dow’s commitment to a strong positive process safety culture. Dow’s business model at the time required a commitment to research and development. I believe the implementation of the reactive chemical program at Dow was necessary for the survival of Dow’s business model that included this commitment to research and development.”

Second Black Swan
The second Black Swan incident was the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. On December 3, 1984, the accidental release of 40 metric tons of methyl isocyanate resulted in over 2,000 fatalities, 100,000 injuries and significant damage to livestock and vegetation.

“Prior to this incident, a massive release of acutely toxic material that could result in such a catastrophe was not thought as possible,” Murphy said.

This event resulted in 17 chemical and petroleum companies creating the AIChE Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) in 1985.

Union Carbide did not survive the Black Swan of Bhopal, but the chemical industry did with the creation of CCPS, Murphy said. Through CCPS, Bhopal has had a very positive impact on process safety from an industry, company and personal perspective.

“Black Swans are rare events, but they happen with surprising frequency,” Murphy said. “It is possible to ward of a disaster if a manufacturer continues to use hazard identification. A strong, robust process safety management system will minimize the impact. Companies and individuals should be aware of warning signs so you can avoid them.”