Analysis of Buncefield Fire Explosion: A Critical Review

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George Washington University
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This study will critically analyze the Buncefield fire explosion which occurred in Herefordshire in 2005. This study analyzed the background of the Buncefield terminal, its management systems more especially the occupational health and safety management systems both for its members of staff and the facilities. The purpose is to enlighten readers on the significance of implementing safety measures at the workplace. The study will evaluate the different literature that has been written on this particular incident and then rely on both qualitative and quantitative methods of study to make its inferences. For this study to be successful, both the quantitative and non-quantitative data have to be analyzed.

The findings showed that occupational health and safety management systems were not observed by the company. It was therefore recommended that the company should immediately put in place the occupational health and safety management systems which are internationally recognized. The primary data for this study was obtained by designing questionnaires and interviewing both the current and former employees of the company and the people who live in the neighborhood. Secondary data was also obtained from books newspapers, journals, television clips, and other written materials.

Keywords: explosion, occupational health, management systems

Buncefield Fire Explosion


This report is about the factors that contributed to the Buncefield fire explosion and how an understanding of the occupational health and safety management systems could help counter such an occurrence. The Buncefield fire of December 2005 after a series of explosions occurred at Hertfordshire Oil Storage which is located in Hertfordshire in England. The terminal was the fifth biggest oil storage depot in England; Its capacity was 60 million imperial gallons. The terminal is jointly owned by Texaco with 40% and the Total UK with 60 % (Mannan, 2014). The biggest explosion took place at 06:01 at tank 912 which ignited more explosions which led to the fire reaching 20 large tanks. The firefighting and emergency services began at 6:08. The investigators found out that the cause of the explosion was the fuel-air explosion in the leaking fuel vapor cloud. Netherlands (Hurley et al, 2016). Due to the inversion layer, the explosions were heard more than 125 miles away. The accident validates the need to implement work related actions that boost interactions and results in better working conditions as explained in ISO 45001:2018. The safety management systems encourages employers and high level stakeholders to strive to make workers' life safe and conducive. Thus, the firm's reluctance to abide by the OSHA and ISO requirements may have indirectly let to the occurrence or the problem.

The reports also indicated that the explosions were heard in France, and Belgium. According to the British Geological Survey which monitors such events, the explosion had a measure of 2.4 on the Ritcher Scale (Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, 2006). It was described as one of the biggest explosions in Europe since 1974 when there was the Flixborough disaster. Since the firefighting teams were well-organized by afternoon, the fire had been extinguished. There was one tank that the firefighters had left to burn rather than attempt to extinguish the fire which reignited in the evening. The buildings in areas such as St Albans are suffered greatly.

Literature Review

Several researchers and practitioners in the oil industry have written a lot on the different ways in which the oil industry can prevent disasters such as fires and specifically the Buncefield disaster. The oil terminals are so flammable due to the petroleum products which easily catch fire. According to Mather et al., (2007) once there is an ignition of the stored fuel or the mixture of fuel and air it may cause a very big fire or an explosion accident. Additionally, most of the large fires that have been occurring in the oil storage terminals all over the world such as the one in Buncefield were majorly caused by a lack of occupational health safety management systems. Hurley et al., (2016) uses the example of the Buncefield fire to validate that safety measures are essential in helping mitigate and prepare employees on primary measures to implement when an accident occurs.

Renni et al., (2010) has written a lot about the Buncefield fire. He cites the report which was prepared by the Major Incidents Investigations Board in 2008. The report found out that tank 912 at the oil storage depot had a standard gauge which was stuck and the independent switch for switching on and off was not working which meant that the tank was blindly being filled with petrol. This also meant that it was not easy to monitor the indicator which shows the amount of oil in the tank. During the time of the accident, the tank was filled with petrol till it overflowed through the vents which were situated at the top of the tank. This led to the formation of the vapor cloud next to the ground level which was later ignited and then exploded. The author gives this particular incident to demonstrate how lapses in health and safety management practices can lead to disasters (Molkov, 2001). He, therefore, explains that there is no other way of ensuring that there is safety for both the people and property at the depot apart from adhering strictly to the health and safety management systems.

The handbook on fire protection gives procedure by procedure on how fire and other explosions can be prevented in the oil storage points (Hurley et al., 2016). The handbook explains how flammable oil is and how important it is to devise the best ways in which the oil can be prevented from forming a vapor cloud because if that happens, then it is very easy to experience a fire outbreak. He says that all the employees who are working in oil depots irrespective of their departments should be trained on fire safety and management. He further posits that there should adequate emergency plans before an accident occurs. He cites an example of the Buncefield fire tragedy where such plans were not adequate. The senior management and those who are in charge of disasters and emergence in depots should conduct assessments regularly to identify the risks involved so that adequate emergency plans can be put in place. According to Mannan (2014), the identification of hazards, assessment, and control are some of the most important steps to be taken in ensuring that there is safety in the working environment. He posits that for the environmental protection risk assessment needs to be done and then organizes for the likely scenarios of accidents which include the off and on side paths.

International Seminar on Fire and Explosion Hazards (2001) came up with a raft of measures on how to prevent fires and explosions in oil depots. The delegates agreed that most of the fires and explosions are not mainly caused by a lack of policies and legislation on the health and safety management systems on fire. They, therefore, proposed that apart from coming up with legislation on how fires and explosions, they should come up with the different ways in which the depot management teams can be compelled to put the policies into practice (Siddiqui et al., 2018). Kreis, Busby and Leonardi (2012) critically approached the issue of fires and explosions in depot from the environmental perspective. He analyses in detail the different ways in which the explosions of such fires can have devastating consequences to the health not only of those who are living near the oil depot but even for those who are far away. This is because when sure fires occur they spread to large areas such as the case of Buncefield where the people and property which were situated more than 70 kilometers away were affected. The Buncefield explosion: A compilation by Sceptre Fundraising Team (2006) explained in detailed what caused the fire and the different ways in which such disasters can be prevented.

For instance, they cited that the fire occupational health and safety management systems were not adequate and the management team was not prepared for such a disaster which led to the massive destruction of property. They further explain that the management had not analyzed their strategies in incident management and the firefighting consequences. For instance, they did not know whether there were up to date plans on drainage so that they could be available for the emergency teams. They were supposed to have assessed the topographical details for the surface flows. Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service. (2006) Concurred with the other teams and investigative agencies which investigated the cause of the fire. They explained that the best way to have proper planning measures and to have in place the health safety and management systems because they will ensure that all the plans concerning fires and other disasters are well catered for.

This study, therefore, used the above literature review as the secondary data. The above materials were selected on the basis that they were relevant to the topic of study and they contained information which was up to date concerning the fire explosion Buncefield. Additionally, the materials were credible because they were either written by experts in the field, experienced industrial practitioners or scholars. They are therefore relevant to this study.

Research Methodology

To get credible findings, the study used both qualitative method. The qualitative research method is a scientific method of gathering data that is not numerical. This research type interprets the characteristics, defining concepts, description of things, symbols, and metaphors. It does not deal with measures and the things that require counting. This type of research answers when and how a particular phenomenon occurred. In applying this method in Buncefield fire explosion, an analysis of the reports concerning the fire explosion will be analyzed (Tracy, 2013). The description will analyze the media reports, the various investigative agencies, the reports given by the eye witness as well as the former employees of the company. Since the qualitative methods focus on how and why something happened then the analysis of the reports and another primary I data will focus on looking at whether the company adhered to the occupational health and safety management systems. Besides, the method will focus on finding out how the fire explosion was caused and the specific areas where there was a lapse of the occupational and health management system. Therefore, to understand whether the firm adhered to this safety management system all the issues were assessed in totality. After gathering all the qualitative data, interpretations and generalizations were made not necessary on the frequency of the occurrence but rather but from the logical generalizations based on individual cases (Tracy, 2013). The analysis of the collected data showed that the company did not adhere to the occupational health and safety management systems.

Findings and Recommendations

The Defects of the Switch and the Bunds

After the analysis of data from all the subjects, the following findings were made. The data that gave detailed information about the lapses on the operational management came mainly from the current and former employees of the company. Firstly, the accident occurred after a fault occurred at Tank912. The tank was fitted with a high-level switch designed in such a way that its functionalities would easily b...

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