Health and safety lessons to learn following the Beirut explosion

Health & Safety Lessons Following the Beirut Explosion

More information is now coming to light regarding the terrible Ammonium Nitrate explosion in Beirut on the 4th August 2020 which made International headlines. Finch Consulting’s experts consider whether the same risk could be faced in the UK, and how and why that risk is likely to be managed differently.


In 2013 a ship from Georgia bound for Mozambique was impounded due to damage causing it to be deemed “unseaworthy”. Due to debts owed, the ship and its cargo was seized in February 2014[1], which included almost 2,750 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate.

Ammonium Nitrate is a highly explosive salt like substance which can be used to make fertilisers, but is also an ingredient in commercial explosives. As is typical in this sort of situation, the senior officers on the ship were initially held pending payment of the debts due. They were however released with the summary of the Court’s case stating:

Owing to the risks associated with retaining the Ammonium Nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouse. The vessel and cargo remain to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal.”[2]

This was to be the first of many warnings received by those in authority both publicly and privately about the dangers of the cargo.

Initially an issue was raised with Customs Officials after the cargo had been offloaded into the warehouse despite Lebanese law forbidding storage of Ammonium Nitrate within the port facility. The Customs Officials raised the issue internally and externally with reports suggesting that as many as 5 letters were sent to various Judges in the period between 2014 and 2017. An official order to offload also drew attention to the fact that the Ammonium Nitrate must be stored safely. Whether due to lack of understanding about how to achieve this or lack of appropriate facilities, clearly safe storage was not in fact achieved.

On 4th August 2020 the Ammonium Nitrate ignited in an explosion that could be heard in Cyprus 150 miles away, the exact cause of which is not yet publicly known.

Finch Noise and Vibration Team

Apart from the physical damage in the area caused by the blast which reportedly killed over 100 people and injured at least 4,000 more, the fact it was heard 150 miles away gives some indication of the noise it generated.

Finch Noise expert Teli Chinelis provides some context to the aural impact of the blast.

“Explosions tend to produce shock waves also known as blast overpressure, which can be associated with physical damage to the ear, as well as general bodily injury, including fatal injury. Burst eardrums are a risk for any peak pressure above around 185 dB, whilst 200 dB is a rough threshold for bodily damage; at 202 dB, the risk of fatal injury is around 10%. At the reported amount of Ammonium Nitrate which roughly equivalent to 1,000 tonnes of TNT, that 200 dB threshold might be reached at as little as 350 metres from the explosion.”

The Beirut blast was not as loud as a Nuclear explosion which lies in a range of 240dB to more than 280dB and is amongst the loudest phenomena on Earth. Explosion of the biggest bomb ever tried was heard at a distance of about 1000 km. Only very big volcanic eruptions are louder than this.

Finch Consulting Chemical and Mechanical Engineers

Ammonium Nitrate is used commonly in fertiliser as it is Nitrogen rich which helps with plant growth. It is stored across the world, from India to Australia and there are also multiple storage depots in the UK. A European Directive issued (and subsequently revised) following the prolonged escape of toxic material in Seveso, Italy in 1976, requires control and mitigation of hazardous substances across EU member states. In the UK, this Directive is implemented by the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015 (COMAH).

As the cargo stored in Beirut was due to be used for explosives and due to its quantity, in the UK it would require higher tier controls. In this situation extra controls and mitigations would have had to be put in place regarding containers and location which would almost certainly have prevented the cargo being stored in such a populated area, or without suitable fire management to reduce the risk of ignition.

If you are unsure about whether you store enough substances to fall under COMAH, or need help in complying with the COMAH regulations, then Finch can assist you. Dr. Andrea Longley, Tristan Pulford, and Dr. Richard Brown have experience putting together applications, plans and supporting documentation for both higher and lower tier COMAH sites ranging from LPG storage, through to Lithium for batteries.

Finch Legal

The Beirut incident is not the first explosion to have occurred involving Ammonium Nitrate although it may have been the largest. Across Europe as well as in many countries, compliance with legislative controls like COMAH in the UK, minimise the risks arising from handling, managing, and storing explosive and other dangerous substances.

Breach of COMAH is a criminal offence and is almost certainly also a breach of sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (“the Act”). The general duties under Section 2(1) of the Act (duty on every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees), and Section 3 (similar duty owed to non-employees), are likely to be the starting point for any prosecutor considering charges against a duty holder responsible for a site where Ammonium Nitrate is being stored, whether or not an incident has occurred.  However, it is possible for a dutyholder to be prosecuted for a breach or breaches of the Act as well as a breach of COMAH.

The consequences of a conviction for breach of the Act can be extremely serious with significant fines (and imprisonment available for individuals) on sentencing under the Sentencing Council’s guideline. This is in addition to prosecution costs and reputational damage from the conviction.

If a duty holder is prosecuted for a breach of COMAH they will face similar sentencing outcomes to those outlined above on conviction.

If there is an incident which results in one or more deaths, manslaughter charges may be considered against any company and/or individual with significant responsibility for ensuring the safe handling, storage, or transportation of the substance implicated.

Duty holders should also remember there does not need to be an incident for a prosecution to take place. Health and safety prosecutions are based on the failure to control a risk of harm. Actual harm is an aggravating feature.

The key aim of health and safety legislation though is not to punish but to prevent harmful incidents, such as those involving dangerous substances like Ammonium Nitrate and to limit the impact on people and the environment when things do go wrong

Incidents such as that in Beirut serve as a reminder to all dealing with substances such as Ammonium Nitrate that care and attention to detail is required not only at the planning stage but for the duration of the substance being within the duty holders control. Since the blast at least one company Portico Shipping Limited has withdrawn an application for consent to store up to 4,999 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate made in December 2019. The reasons for the withdrawal of the application are not clear from the Portsmouth City Council planning application website but it is notable that it was withdrawn on or around 10 August 2020, six days after the Beirut incident.

No one is saying you cannot store Ammonium Nitrate but those who do or intend to do so need to ensure that they are able to do so in a manner that complies with the relevant safety legislation and obtains specialist help from companies like Finch who have in house legal support (Susan Dearden and  Julia Thomas) to understand the legal and practical implications of dealing with dangerous substances and to assist you in taking reasonably practicable steps to mitigate the risk to others who may be affected in the event of something going wrong.

Finch Training

The incident, and others similar to it, act as a stark reminder of the importance of properly targeted training throughout all levels of the organisation. The added emphasis is because clearly the same training to all levels would be inappropriate. Training must be relevant to the role of the person receiving it. For instance, senior management may not need to know the various specific storage requirements for substances of this type, but they do need to know the overall legal responsibility and accountability that rests with the senior management, even if an accident does not take place. Also, they must be aware that storage and use of certain substances and elements carries inherent risk, and that there is legislation and regulations in place in each jurisdiction (for multinational companies) which must be adhered to. The larger the specific risk, in general, the more important that it is that the risk is managed with the involvement of board level oversight.

It is the duty of the senior team to ensure that a suitably trained and competent duty holder is appointed, who is not only trained in the broad as well as the specific legal requirements, but is capable of carrying out or overseeing assessment of the hazards, and knowledge of industry-wide control measures to manage and mitigate the risk in so far as is reasonably practicable.

Moving down through the organisation, staff who are handling, moving or storing goods, whatever their nature, need to be trained to ask whatever questions are necessary to determine what hazards exist with those goods and who or where to refer to for risk reduction measures.

However, simply making the information available to staff members, or delivering the training, is unlikely to be sufficient on its own to control risk. As the level of risk goes up, so does the need for procedural auditing, competence checking, and regular evaluation of performance. This ensures that the loop is closed, and any deficiencies are addressed.

Lastly, a mention of what is sometimes referred to as “soft skills” or culture within a business. Businesses must ensure that all staff are trained to challenge unsafe acts or practices, even if that means challenging staff who are above them in terms of hierarchy, without fear of repercussions. A good model here is the assertiveness component of Crew Resource Management which has been pioneered in the aviation industry. This was developed in the wake of accidents where the captain of the aircraft was not challenged in persisting with hazardous conduct by junior crew members.


Aside from terrorist attacks, nearly all major incidents and accidents with hindsight, have been predictable and preventable, whether the cause was simple or resulted from multifaceted non compliances with health and safety provisions and common sense.

Organisations must take responsibility at the highest level for key safety decisions including the appointment of competent staff and contractors to manage specialist decisions which have health and safety implications. The tone is set at board level, where the highest and broadest legal (and ethical) responsibility rests.

From a legal perspective it is imperative that each organisation is aware of and complies with the Regulations that apply to all aspects of its work. These Regulations are intended to help ensure that all risks to staff and others from your business are identified and managed to eliminate or minimise risk.  Where Regulations are supported by Associated Codes of Practice or Guidance, as is the case in relation to COMAH then following such Guidance will normally be enough to demonstrate compliance.

Each set of hazards encountered by businesses need to be assessed uniquely by personnel who are trained, skilled and competent in those areas, and appropriate control measures implemented to mitigate any risks that cannot be eliminated.

Consideration should be given to ensuring that hand in hand with the control measures put in place, training needs to be given to staff so that they can understand and implement the controls appropriately.  Depending upon the level of risk it may be necessary to conduct competence testing initially after the training and at suitable intervals thereafter and audit performance and application of the control measures in place.

Depending upon the size of an organisation, not all of the requisite skills or perspectives may exist within the business. However, it is important to recognise where gaps exist in the capabilities and/or knowledge of staff and seek specialist help from consultants like Finch Consulting who specialise in the everyday management of risk.

[1] Lloyd’s List intelligence database