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Tragedy Strikes Port of Beirut, Lebanon

On Tuesday, 4 August 2020, at around 18:00 local time, a massive explosion erupted at the Port of Beirut, Lebanon, causing massive damage to the port and the surrounding city. The explosion appears to have been caused by 2,700 tons of improperly-stored ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is a common industrial chemical typically used in fertilizer.

Ammonium nitrate is also highly reactive, and has been used to create explosives – notably in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

While information on what occurred is still being released, it appears that port officials were aware that the ammonium nitrate was stored improperly on site and failed to rectify the issue. The Lebanese government has placed all port officials under house arrest and launched an investigation into the cause(s) of the explosion.

As port professionals, we carry a responsibility for the health and welfare of those who work for and with us. We are fortunate in the United States to have stringent regulations regarding the handling of hazardous cargoes, as enumerated in 33 CFR 126, and properly empowered oversight agencies to enforce these regulations. Regardless, the responsibility for following these regulations, and employing best practices beyond the letter of the law, falls to port management.

There are many dangers present in a port environment such as heavy mobile equipment, suspended loads, and hazardous cargoes, and it is incumbent on every port worker to do their part to identify and mitigate hazards. Creating a culture of safety is a valuable asset, and it is incumbent on port management in particular to ensure that safety is paramount at every level of port operations. Some hallmarks of a culture of safety include:

Workers have the authority to stop work if they identify an unsafe condition. Safety must take priority over productivity, and the two are by no means mutually exclusive. If anyone, in any part of an operation sees an unsafe condition present or emerging, they must have the ability to stop the operation until the unsafe condition can be addressed.

Regular safety briefings are being held. “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Having a danger present every day can lead to complacency: the longer we learn to live with danger, the less frightening it is likely to be. Regular safety briefings are a good way to reduce complacency, and remind everyone of the dangers that exist in a port environment, as well as address any unique hazards that may be present and how to address them.

A PPE Policy is in place and enforced. Having a PPE policy is practically meaningless unless it is enforced. PPE exists to protect life and limb, but it only works if it is good condition. Having replacement PPE available when it has exceeded its useful life is a must.

Hazardous cargoes move quickly through the port. For many ports, long-term storage of cargo is undesirable. Ports are intermodal exchange points, and cargo should travel through ports briskly. This is particularly crucial for hazardous cargoes, as ports are designed for maximizing throughput, not the indefinite safe storage of hazardous materials.

Hazardous cargoes are handled and stored properly. Coastal ports exist in a saltwater environment, which can corrode or otherwise compromise materials not explicitly designed to withstand the coastal weather conditions. In addition, port equipment damages cargo and cargo containers from time to time, which can compromise the storage conditions for any cargo, especially hazardous cargo. As such, regular inspection of any hazardous cargo must be conducted, and professional help enlisted if necessary to assess any hazard posed by compromised cargoes.

Small issues are investigated and addressed before they become big issues. Massive problems are, more often than not, created when a series of small issues compound. Seemingly small issues do not command the same urgency as pressing concerns, but must be taken seriously and addressed before they become large issues.

Open lines of communication are present. Employees at every level should feel comfortable reporting any unsafe conditions, circumstances that may lead to an unsafe condition, or ideas for how something can be achieved more safely. Good ideas should always be allowed to flow freely.

As we always say, it’s important to protect your assets, the most valuable of which is your people. We have an unfortunate example of why safety and compliance are so critical to effective port operations.

Our prayers go out to the people of Lebanon as they pick up the pieces in the wake of this tragedy.

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