The recommendations of Justice S.C. Jain Commission, which went into 1997 explosion that claimed over 60 lives, remain on paper

Safety mechanism in HPCL Visakh Refinery has again gone for a toss with most of the recommendations of Justice S.C. Jain Commission, which went into 1997 explosion that claimed over 60 lives, remaining on paper.

Incidentally, the August 23 blast and collapse of the cooling tower in the refinery triggered by unprecedented surge of hydrocarbons dealt a big blow to the safety record of HPCL five months after the company declared compliance to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-Process Safety Management standards.

Informed sources told The Hindu that overdependence on contractors for work of perennial nature, which was strongly criticised by the Jain Commission, and cost-cutting measures leading to compromising on safety measures were exposing the refinery to frequent accidents.

Asked to comment on overdependence on contract workers, HPCL Executive Director V.V.R. Narasimham told this correspondent that though the number of contract workers was more, in all sensitive areas their work was being monitored directly by the engineers and other executives of the company.

The Jain Commission in its report said: “It is learnt that casual labour and contract labour is employed even in performing sensitive operational duties relating to the gas pipeline both for LPG and naphtha as well as other operational work. This should be strictly disallowed.”

The panel had recommended maintaining pipelines and valves in leak-proof condition with preventive maintenance schedule. It said valve history cards shall be ensured as per Oil Industry Safety Directorate protocol. It said “management shall ensure flow of technical information in case of emergency to the district off-site emergency authority. The plant emergency coordination team shall be provided with public warning system.”

No public address system was used to caution people living in Malkapuram and Sriharipuram after the blast on August 23. Even the alarm system turned ineffective due to massive gas surge, a fact admitted by Mr. Narasimham. Though the plant has gas leak detection and warning system, it is not known why it failed to prevent the huge surge of hydrocarbons.

Several workers present in the refinery had a providential escape when the Crude Distillation Unit-3 was damaged in a devastating fire three months ago. “Outbreak of fire and gas leakage in such a sensitive and hazardous industry is a matter of serious concern,” a senior official of HPCL, who retired recently, said.