Chemical Plant Explosion: What’s the State of Industrial Safety in China?

Last week, 78 people were killed in an explosion at a pesticide plant in the city of Yancheng, Jiangsu province. It was one of the most serious industrial accidents in China in recent years. How do Chinese companies approach industrial safety – and what role does functional safety play?

An explosion on the premises of Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical Co. has led to the deaths of 78 people. Initial reports had claimed that there were 47 victims. According to an eyewitness, a tanker truck carrying natural gas caught fire, triggering an explosion in a benzene storage area. Local police have detained the company’s key executives, but it is not yet clear who is to blame.

A similar disaster occurred in August 2015 at a chemical plant in the city of Tianjin, killing 173 people. In response, the Chinese government announced that factories across the nation were to be inspected for safety risks.

Understanding of Safety Differs from That in Europe

China is now working intensively to implement GBT 21109, the Chinese equivalent of the IEC 61511 standard for functional safety. This aims to set out a legal guideline for the safety-related design of process plants. Transitional phases are already underway.

However, the standard alone is not enough, says Peter Sieber, Vice President of Norms and Standards and Vice President for China at HIMA Paul Hildebrandt GmbH. “To the majority of plant operators in China, it is not entirely clear what lies behind such important topics as safety lifecycle management, safety requirements specification, or functional safety management.”

It is common belief in China that using safety controllers with IEC 61508 certification is enough to stay safe. However, this is a misconception.

“You need to consider every aspect that could influence the function of a safety system.”
Peter Sieber,
Vice President China / Norms & Standards, HIMA

It is essential to have a complete overview of all influencing factors. This includes systems that are meant to reduce the consequences of any process malfunctions or failures that may occur. For example, if a company keeps gas tanks in the immediate vicinity of its production facilities – as was the case in the recent incident in China – then there are additional questions to answer. Could damage to the process plant affect the tank? If so, how? “In this case, the operator is required to define and implement appropriate protective measures,” explains Sieber. “Otherwise, incalculable operational hazards arise.”