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2020-21 saw some of the biggest logistical disasters, and no, we are not referring to the Ever given stuck in the Suez Canal. The Lebanon explosion in 2020 and the X-Press Pearl disaster a few months ago are prime examples of the mismanagement of dangerous goods. Almost every year, we hear of large oil spills in the ocean and port explosions that pose threats to economic, human and environmental aspects.

(Stock Image)

Dangerous goods are materials that, while transporting, is a risk to the health, safety and property of the environment that it is passing through. These materials can be flammable, radioactive, corrosive, explosive or oxidising. Sometimes these materials can also be biohazards, toxic and even pathogenic. This article explores how the two incidents have made it essential for us to understand the nuances of dangerous goods logistics and the necessity for safe, secure, and trusted handling of these goods. Furthermore, we also try to understand what steps are taken to prevent such incidents in the future.

Cost to the City and Ecosystem

In August last year, Lebanon’s capital Beirut was in a state of crisis as the Port of Beirut experienced a massive explosion. The blasts recorded a 3.3 magnitude on the seismic scale. It was felt in Syria, Israel and Turkey and caused 207 deaths and over 7,500 non-fatal injuries. There was a loss of property to over half of the city, costing around $15 billion. Hotels, hospitals, residential complexes were destroyed, and over 300,000 people were left homeless in a matter of hours. The cause? 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port silo, next to a shipment of fireworks. Apart from mishandling and careless storage of dangerous goods, there are severe corruption charges on the government authorities, port authorities, and shipping industry for their lack of transparency.

Again, in May this year, a similar tragedy struck Sri Lanka when the container ship X-Press Pearl caught fire off the coast of Colombo, Sri Lanka. The vessel sank completely after being consumed by flames after 12 days of continuous burning. The estimated cargo loss is supposed to range anywhere between $30 million to $50 million. The crew members were unharmed; however, this was considered as one of the worst marine ecological disasters to have taken place in Sri Lanka. Apart from massive ecosystem damage to the pristine waters and beaches of Sri Lanka, more than 4.300 fishermen families lost their livelihood as fishing was banned off the coast. The cause? When the crew discovered the leak off the coast of Jebel Ali, where it was loaded, permissions were not granted by the Port of Hamad and Hazira to offload. No specialists were on board the ship, and the vessel continued its journey to Colombo. However, once arrived at the port, they failed to report the emergency and did not receive a berth to unload.

(X-Press Pearl Leaking Fumes of Nitric Acid. Pic Credit: Wikipedia)

In the recent past, these two serious incidents struck a chord with the logistics community, but it was not something that they were unaware of it. Back in 2015, a series of explosions at the Port of Tianjin, China, killed 173 people as 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, causing infernal fires that took over four days to control. Tianjin, one of the hubs for the New Silk Road, has since stopped accepting the import and export of hazardous cargo. The cause? Safety regulations were ignored, and improper documentation caused uncertainty in the content and quantity of the various dangerous goods stored in the warehouse.

The common underlying issues of these incidents was a severe lack of communication, mishandling, and in one of the cases, corruption and the other two, a lack of knowledge and responsibility. If only the precarious nature of the goods was considered then, it would have saved not only lives and livelihoods but also prevented ecological and economic disasters.

Handle with care

Those responsible for transporting dangerous goods rightly understand the significance of mitigating risks while storing and handling hazardous goods. National laws and international treaties usually dictate the handling and transporting protocols, which generally differ from material to material. At the same time, the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), managed by the United Nations, assists the assortment of hazardous material. IATA, IMO and IMDG all help to regulate and accommodate the transport of these goods. These international organisations mainly support air freight and sea freight. With the growing rail transport capabilities, there is now a requirement to have a global organisation for rail freight such as the IMO or IATA.

One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to reduce the number of deaths and ecological impacts caused due to the transportation of dangerous goods. Training in the proper handling of these goods is customary for all those involved in its transport. At the storage level, hazardous goods often come with special packing material or containers, and when stored in warehouses, numerous factors need to be considered, such as the type of warehouse, hygiene, temperature, inspection, labelling, etc. Logistics companies and warehouses often support various services to store dangerous goods such as bunker storage, trained specialists to handle, cross-docking, IT services, and other value additions.

(UN Dangerous Material Symbols)

Since 2015, there has been an 8.8 % increase in the transport of dangerous goods in Europe and globally the numbers have increased too. In July 2020, DB Schenker dedicated a new service for battery logistics to transport them via air, sea, rail and road. To promote the ongoing electrification of global energy consumption, DB Schenker can transport Lithium batteries. They explicitly mention the standards to uphold for the proper handling and storing of these batteries, including having the highest levels of security.

Understandably, there is no foolproof method to transport hazardous goods but to have more care administered minimises damage in case of accidents. As SMEs, it is integral to comply with all obligatory processes and find out about your rights and responsibilities while handling dangerous goods, depending on your role in the supply chain. Consequently, enforcement of such measures helps to prevent losses and promotes a more transparent logistical process.

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