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Chapter: Professional Ethics in Engineering - Engineer'S Responsibility For Safety

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Bhopal Gas Tragedy

On December 3, 1984, Union Carbide's pesticide-manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India leaked 40 tons of the deadly gas, methyl isocyanate into a sleeping, impoverished community - killing 2,500 within a few days, 10000 permanently disabled and injuring 100,000 people. Ten years later, it increased to 4000 to 7000 deaths and injuries to 600,000.

BHOPAL GAS TRAGEDY:

 

On December 3, 1984, Union Carbide's pesticide-manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India leaked 40 tons of the deadly gas, methyl isocyanate into a sleeping, impoverished community - killing 2,500 within a few days, 10000 permanently disabled and injuring 100,000 people. Ten years later, it increased to 4000 to 7000 deaths and injuries to 600,000.

 

Risks taken:

 

·        Storage tank of Methyl Isocyanate gas was filled to more than 75% capacity as against Union Carbide‘s spec. that it should never be more than 60% full.

 

·        The company‘s West Virginia plant was controlling the safety systems and detected leakages thro‟ computers but the Bhopal plant only used manual labour for control and leak detection.

 

·        The Methyl Isocyanate gas, being highly concentrated, burns parts of body with which it comes into contact, even blinding eyes and destroying lungs.

 

Causal Factors:

Three protective systems out of service

Plant was understaffed due to costs.

Very high inventory of MIC, an extremely toxic material.

The accident occurred in the early morning.

 

  Most of the people killed lived in a shanty (poorly built) town located very close to the plant fence.

 

Workers made the following attempts to save the plant:

 

  They tried to turn on the plant refrigeration system to cool down the environment and slow the reaction. (The refrigeration system had been drained of coolant weeks before and never refilled - - it cost too much.)

 

   They tried to route expanding gases to a neighbouring tank. (The tank's pressure gauge was broken and indicated the tank was full when it was really empty.)

 

  They tried to purge the gases through a scrubber. (The scrubber was designed for flow rates, temperatures and pressures that were a fraction of what was by this time escaping from the tank. The scrubber was as a result ineffective.)

 

  They tried to route the gases through a flare tower -- to burn them away. (The supply line to the flare tower was broken and hadn't been replaced.)

 

   They tried to spray water on the gases and have them settle to the ground, by this time the chemical reaction was nearly completed. (The gases were escaping at a point 120 feet above ground; the hoses were designed to shoot water up to 100 feet into the air.) In just 2 hours the chemicals escaped to form a deadly cloud over hundreds of thousands of people incl. poor migrant labourers who stayed close to the plant.



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