The Weekly Reflektion 12/2024

Learning from Major Accidents is not a recent innovation. Ever since hazardous materials have been manufactured and stored, accidents have occurred, and efforts have been made to learn and prevent the recurrence of similar accidents. Many countries have reacted to Major Accidents by passing laws and developing standards. When these are continually updated, they should represent the industries ‘best’ technologies, techniques, and practices for the prevention of Major Accidents. The journey does not however end here. As we pursue our objectives for continual improvement, we may introduce new hazards that need then to be managed. As we have mentioned before the aim in prevention of Major Accidents is not to get there, it is to stay on the road.

How are you keeping up to speed with prevention of Major Accidents?

In August 1769 lightning struck the tower of the Church of San Nazaro in Brescia, Italy.  In the vaults of the church there was about 90 tons of gunpowder stored on behalf of the Republic of Venice. The resulting explosion killed over 3000 people and destroyed a large part of the city. Huge stones were hurled out over a radius of one kilometer, doors of houses and shops burst open and broken glass showered over the city.

For many centuries gunpowder was stored in churches and there seems to have been a belief that the gunpowder would be safe and not affected by lightning strikes. The assumption was that the church bells prevented lightning. Unfortunately evidence from the time seems to indicate that the steeples and towers on a church actually encouraged lightning strikes. During thunder storms teams of men rang the bells in church towers in efforts to make the thunderstorms go away.  In the period 1753 to 1786 lightning killed 103 French bell ringers. An indication that sometimes it is better to put your faith in evidence rather than in faith itself.

Following the Brescia explosion Britain passed laws governing the manufacture and storage of gunpowder. The legislation was driven by two main factors. The first was the need to protect the gunpowder so that it would be available as required, not least for Britains war efforts. The second was to protect people from the devastating consequences of an unintended explosion. Benjamin Franklin, who was at the time carrying out experiments on igniting flammable mixtures with electricity, advised on the use of pointed ‘lightning rods’ on church towers and steeples to conduct any lightning strike to earth and prevent an ignition. At this time there was also adispute over the best shaped lightning rods , with Franklin a proponent of sharp pointed rods on top of buildings and an Englishman, Benjamin Wilson urging the use of ball shaped terminals below the roof line. The argument became politicalsince this was the time of the American Revolution with Franklin as one of the revolutionary leaders. George III decided he didn’t want American advicand Franklin’s conductors were replaced on several British munitions stores.  One of them in Sumatra subsequently disappeared with a bang during a  thunderstorm.

While Britian took action to learn from Brescia, Rhodes was less fortunate. In 1856 gunpowder stored in the Church of St John ignited due to a lightning strike and allegedly 4000 people were killed. The gunpowder had been stored there during the Rhodes siege by the Ottoman empire in 1522.Perhaps if there had been a weekly reflection in the Ottoman empire at that time the disaster could have been averted.

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