John Maynard Keynes, widely considered to be one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, once stated ‘in the long run, we’re all dead’. He was commenting on a defensive reflex of some economists to focus on the likely composition of a far distant business landscape, when in fact the short to medium impacts and mitigations are more vital.

In the more contemporary and visceral world of Process Safety, I would suggest that the epithet probably segues into ‘in the long run, you’re probably still liable’.

My friend and associate David Raymond of Embark Consulting made me aware of a recent article in the IOSH Magazine concerning a Process Safety incident fine on Tata Steel.

In 2007 a Process Hazard Review was undertaken by engineering contractor ABB, which amongst other findings, identified a significant risk of a release of benzole vapour -  a known carcinogen which is also highly flammable. Accordingly, they recommended that Tata Steel UK replace missing glass on portholes on two benzole plants and also advised installing a trip system to isolate the steam supply and fitting a pressure alarm. The cost of these measures was estimated at £25,000.

None of the suggestions were acted on in 2007, nor in 2008 or 2009 after ABB carried out follow-up reviews. It is possible that the Tata Management decided that the incident was unlikely to happen on their watch and, in the long run, any impact would be someone else’s problem.

However, on 17 June 2011, a large quantity of benzole vapour was released through an open porthole. The vapour cloud, a mixture of benzene and toluene, spread across the site leaving two workers with breathing difficulties and risking the death of five if the cloud had ignited.

In 2016 Tata Steel UK sold the Scunthorpe works for £1 to British Steel, a company formed the same year to make long-steel products. In doing so, however, they were unable to disengage themselves from the responsibility of earlier decisions as in 2017, a judge sitting at Hull Crown Court handed Tata down a £930,000 fine (plus costs of £70,000) for repeatedly failing to sanction the £25,000 it would have cost to prevent the incident.

For me, the message of this unfortunate and, but for luck, potentially tragic story, is that failing to take appropriate reasonable preventative measures may indeed come back to bite you on the bum – even if you’ve already sold that part of your anatomy to someone else.

tata steel