Q&A of TÜV Association about explosive plants

After the explosion in a disposal plant for chemical substances in Leverkusen, the TÜV Association answers the most important questions on technical safety and inspection of potentially explosive plants.

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28. July 2021 – After the explosion at a disposal plant in Leverkusen, Dr Hermann Dinkler, expert for fire and explosion protection at the TÜV Association, says: "The safety level of explosive plants such as chemical plants, petrol stations or tanks with gas, petrol or solvents is very high in Germany. This is ensured by strict legal requirements and regular inspections by independent experts. Nevertheless, incidents like the one in Leverkusen cannot be completely ruled out. It is crucial for safety that the operators maintain their facilities regularly, that their employees are sufficiently qualified and that they conscientiously observe inspection appointments."

According to the results of the Plant Safety Report of the Approved Inspection Bodies (ZÜS), experts found significant deficiencies in 24 percent of the inspected storage facilities, 18 percent of petrol stations and 14 percent of other explosive facilities in 2019. These include, for example, progressive corrosion, inadequate marking of plant components or changes in the operation mode without prior assessment.     

What role  does explosion  protection play in industry and  everyday life?

Wherever flammable liquids, gases or dusts are stored and can explode in contact with the air and a suitable ignition source, special protective measures must be taken. This applies to many industrial companies,  especially to the chemical and petroleum industries. Grain mills or sawmills must also be taken into consideration, because dangerous dust explosions can occur here. Special protective measures can apply to the aircraft refuelling facilities at airports. Filling stations for petrol and gas are the most frequently used facilities by the public in everyday life.

What kinds of explosive plants are there?

According to the definition in the Industrial Safety Ordinance, explosive plants are the "totality of explosion protection-relevant work equipment". In addition to process plants, this also includes plants requiring a permit, such as filling plants, petrol stations or airfield refuelling facilities as well as storage facilities with tanks.

Where are the dangers and risks?

If flammable liquids, gases or dusts come into contact with the air due to technical defects or faulty operation and thus form an explosive mixture, massive hazards will arise in combination with an effective ignition source and put the immediate environment in danger, for example employees or residents. Possible ignition sources can be electrostatic discharges, which are also known from taking off a woollen pullover. Explosions in industrial plants cause great damage. The explosion at a refinery south of London in 2005 could still be heard as far as the Dutch coast. The plant was completely destroyed and more than 200 people were injured. An explosion at a fertiliser plant near Toulouse in 2001 damaged large parts of the city and killed more than 30 people.

How is safety regulated in Germany?

In Germany, explosive plants fall under the Industrial Safety Ordinance as they require monitoring. This means that they must be regularly inspected by the employer or, in the case of certain systems, by an approved inspection body (ZÜS), for example the TÜV. The Industrial Safety Ordinance specifies the inspection and inspection intervals: a system must be inspected for explosion safety at least every six years. Annual inspection intervals are prescribed for ventilation and gas warning systems as well as so-called inerting systems. These systems reduce the risk of explosion by replacing the oxygen in the atmosphere in the explosive environment with an inert gas or by diluting flammable vapours or gases to below the limit of an ignitable mixture through ventilation. A ZÜS inspects plants requiring a permit (tank farms, filling stations, gas filling facilities, airfield refuelling facilities) prior to their first operation and at regular intervals during operation. Equipment, protective systems, safety, monitoring and control devices within the definition of harmonised legislation in the EU (ATEX Directive) must be inspected at least every three years.

Wo  is responsible for the safety in Germany?

In Germany, the operator is basically responsible for the safety of his technical plants. He must comply with all applicable regulations imposed on him, for example, the Industrial Safety Ordinance. In addition to extensive documentation obligations, he must carry out a risk assessment and regular inspections as well as complying with inspection intervals. Anyone who operates systems in potentially explosive enviornment must prepare an explosion protection document. This must systematically assess the explosion hazard and document the concept of protective measures. The explosion protection document is part of the risk assessment and includes, among other things, an analysis of the plant and a structured inspection plan.

How high is the level of safety in Germany?

In its annual plant safety report, the TÜV Association evaluates the results of all inspections of storage facilities with a total volume of more than 10,000 litres, filling and discharge facilities for flammable liquids, filling stations and airfield refuelling facilities. In 2019, significant deficiencies were found in 24 percent of the inspected storage facilities, 18 percent of the filling stations, 17 percent of the gas filling facilities and 14 percent of other explosive facilities. With the help of the inspections by neutral bodies, these deficiencies were identified and the facilities could be restored to flawless condition.

Where does the TÜV see deficits in safety?

With the digital networking of technical installations, there arise completely new dangers. In May 2021, the largest fuel pipeline in the USA had to be taken offline for several days after a cyber attack, which led to supply bottlenecks in several federal states. Tank storages for flammable fuels or gases are also increasingly monitored digitally to measure fill levels or pressure. This means that digital systems must also be demonstrably secured and facilities must be protected against cyber attacks. Above all, legislation is needed here. Digital security must become an integral part of the inspection of explosive plants.