The Weekly Reflektion Week 39 / 2020

Thanks to Steven Viddal for his input to this Reflektion and drawing our attention to a newspaper article by Ove Njaa a professor in societal safety at the University of Stavanger. We really appreciate any suggestions for themes or specific incidents that would be worthy of a Reflektion.

The distinction between personal safety and process safety became a major issue following the Texas City Refinery disaster in March 2005. BP, the operator of the refinery, was criticized for a focus on personal safety, measured mainly by lost time incidents, and using this as a measurement of safety standards at the refinery. Personal safety did not cover issues related to process safety and consequently the management did not focus enough on Major Accident prevention. Amazingly many companies have still not learned this lesson.

Will a focus on reduction in accidents and incidents, also lead to a reduction in Major Accident risk?

The midpoint of the Ryfylke tunnel in Stavanger, the longest undersea tunnel in the world

Norway established a ‘zero’ vision for traffic safety in 1999 and the initiative was supported in the National Transport plan approved by the Norwegian Parliament in 2001. The annual fatalities on the roads in Norway have been reduced from 352 in 1998 to 109 in 2019 despite a significant increase in trafficvolume. This reduction can be attributed to many factors including, upgrades and improvement in the roads by the Norwegian Public Roads Association, reduction in speed limits, more focussed speeding controls by the Police, improved response from the emergency services and improvements in vehicle safety measures by the manufacturers. The measurement of accidents and fatalities gives a continuous indication of how effective the measures in place to prevent traffic accidents are working. However, do these measurements give an indication of how effective the measures are to prevent a major accident? Does a reduction in fatalities from road traffic accidents mean the probability of a major accident on the roads is also reduced?

Where and under what circumstances will a Major Accident in traffic occur? In 1999, 39 people lost their lives in a fire in the Mont Blanc-tunnel between France and Italy. The Mount Blanc tunnel consists of a single gallery with a two-lane dual direction road. The fire started in a Belgian transport truck carrying flour and margarine. The fumes quickly filled the tunnel and caused vehicle engines to stall because of lack of oxygen. Most drivers rolled up their windows and waited for rescue however they were soon overcome with smoke and lack of oxygen. Drivers near the blaze who attempted to leave their cars and seek refuge points were quickly overcome. The fire melted wiring in the electrical system plunging the tunnel into darkness and making escape to the emergency fire cubicles difficult. The ventilation system was designed to remove smoke however drove the toxic smoke back down the tunnel faster than anyone could run to safety. It is estimated that the victims were killed within the first 15 minutes. Fire services were available close to each end of the tunnel however they were unable to save the people involved. The fire engines in the tunnel were inoperative due to the lack of oxygen. The firemen became trapped in the smoke and had to take refuge in emergency fire cubicles before they were rescued through a ventilation duct. The fire lasted for 53 hours. A fire in the Tauern tunnel in Austria in 1999 claimed the lives of 12 people. In this case there was a collision then a vehicle carrying paint started to burn. The Tauern tunnel is also a single gallery dual direction tunnel.

The Ryfylke tunnel in Stavanger is the longest undersea tunnel in the world. It is a dual gallery tunnel with separate lanes for opposing directions and hence inherently safer than the Mount Blanc and Tauern tunnels. In the event of a fire it is estimated that the emergency services will be available within 20 minutes. Experience from the Mount Blanc and Tauern tunnels is that this is not sufficient to save anyone caught in a serious fire. They will probably be overcome by smoke and flames in the first 15 minutes. The people involved will need to take actions to save themselves and evacuate through the emergency exits set up at 250-meter intervals.

How robust are the assumptions on fire fighting and escape and evacuation? How sensitive are these assumptions to changes for example new types of electric cars, hydrogen cars if they are developed, new hazard materials being transported due to industry development? Who monitors these changes, assesses the risks and puts measures in place?

How familiar are people with the emergency procedures and systems in the event of a fire in the tunnel? Are people likely to take the correct actions to evacuate the tunnel in time to save themselves? What information and training should people have before they drive in any long road tunnels?

We are concerned that these questions will be asked in the inquiry into a tunnel fire and that only by experiencing multiple fatalities will we be prompted to learn. We are alsoconcerned that the success in reduction in road traffic fatalities has made us complacent on the hazards associated with tunnels. As Ova Njaa stated in his article it is up to the authorities to inform on risk, advise people on how to mitigate the risk and to set standards for how they should take the necessary actions to protect against hazards. With regard to tunnel safety, there is some way to go.

Reflekt AS