The term "industrial accidents" can also refer to plant failures which cause explosions, dangerous leaks, fires, floods, and other major disasters.
Continual industrial growth increases the difficulty of isolating plants from centres of population. In a world which is increasingly dependent on chemical products (many of them highly toxic) and highly complex large-scale technologies, industrial accidents with catastrophic consequences are likely to increase. The world-wide production of organic chemicals has risen from 63 million tonnes in 1970 to about 250 million tonnes by 1985. In OECD countries more than 200 serious chemical accidents occur annually.
Major industrial accidents this century include: Halifax (Canada) 1917, munitions and explosives (2,000 to 3,000 killed, 8,000 injured); Oppan (Germany) 1921, fertilizer extraction (560 killed, 3,000 injured); Hawk's Nest (USA) 1931-35, silicosis during tunnelling (2,000 to 3,000 killed); Texas City (USA) 1947, explosive-triggered fire (600 killed, 2,000 injured); Ludwigshafen (Germany) 1948, chemical factory fire (200 killed, 4,000 injured); Seveso (Italy) 1976, dioxin manufacturing plant explosion (40,000 domestic and farm animals killed; 400 children affected by chloracne, 400 abortions, significant rise in incidence of cancer); San Carlos de la Rapita (Spain) 1978, road tanker fire (200 killed); Salang Tunnel (Afghanistan) 1982, petrol tank truck fire (2,000 to 2,700 killed); Cubato (Brazil) 1984, explosion from leaking pipeline (600 killed, 3,000 injured); Ixhautepec (Mexico) 1984, explosion of stored petroleum gas (1,500 killed, 7,000 injured).
On December 3, 1984, a pesticide Union Carbide Corporation plant in Bhopal, India accidentally released approximately 40 metric tons of methyl isocyanate into the atmosphere. The incident was a catastrophe for Bhopal with an estimated 3000 casualties, 200,000 injuries, and significant damage to livestock and crops. The long-term health effects from such an incident are difficult to evaluate; the International Medical Commission on Bhopal estimated that as of 1994 upwards of 50,000 people remained partially or totally disabled.
A toxic gas leak at the Sequoia Fuels Corporation plant in Gore, Oklahoma, USA killed one worker and injured at least 30 others. At Institute, West Virginia, another leak injured at least 135 people. On October 31, 1986 a gigantic spill of mercury and pesticides from the Sandoz chemical plan in Basel, Switzerland poisoned some 200 miles of the Rhine river.
Engineers are seldom the cause of disasters. But engineers' ability to design, develop, construct and maintain products and projects means they sometimes have to risk the consequences of their engineering being misused or misapplied by others. Outright technical failure is rarely the sole cause of any disaster; rather disasters usually result from the cumulative effect of a number of shortcomings. In particular, the lack of a structured and disciplined approach to risk management resulting in failures in supervision and management, in communication, in control of maintenance and in commitment to safety in organizations.