Previously we wrote about the fall-out from the Lac Megantic rail disaster – the deadliest Canadian rail disaster since 1867.  Many lessons were learned from the two-year investigation that followed.  While less catastrophic, the recent post-Hurricane Harvey Arkema plant explosion near Houston, Texas, will also reveal its own take-aways.

However, even without results from investigations into the Arkema explosions, these incidents deliver a critical lesson: ‘Never say never’.

The ‘perfect storm’ in Lac Megantic

At Lac Megantic, there were 18 factors that led to the rail disaster, taking 47 lives and devastating an entire town.  Each factor, considered in isolation, never would have predicted the disaster that resulted: a short-cut on an engine repair; a small engine fire; an improper brake test; insufficient brakes set; a train left unattended at the top of a hill.  While any one of these factors would have not created the disaster that resulted, unfortunately, for the community and the rail company, many of them collided on one fateful night.

When we work with clients, particularly when exercising their plans, there is always an element of skepticism in the room.  In response to the presented scenario, there are comments of: ‘That could never happen.’ or ‘Isn’t that a bit extreme?’.

The ‘perfect storm’ strikes again.  This time in Texas.

With the Arkema plant explosion, it’s all too easy to see how the company took comfort in their preparations.  If power failed they had generators to keep the temperature-sensitive chemical stable.  Many clients feel secure in knowing they have generator back-up.  In the case of Arkema, water levels rose to the point where the generators failed.  So the company went another step and moved the chemicals to refrigerated tractor trailers, only to have those fail as well.

I can imagine the response in a tabletop exercise in which the scenario involved a power failure, followed by a generator failure, followed by a failure of refrigerated tractor trailers.  No doubt there would have been skepticism in the room.  No doubt, there would be comments of ‘That would never happen’ and ‘Isn’t that a bit extreme’.  But the fact is that, for Arkema, it did happen, just like it happened at Lac Megantic.

This is in not about celebrating or vilifying how Arkema managed their response to Hurricane Harvey.  This is about the dangers of accepting or dismissing risks.  So, when completing your threat risk assessment or exercising your plan, never, say never, because never might be just around the corner.

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