In my first job after college, I worked in the ocean shipping industry. One of my responsibilities was to arrange transportation of hazardous materials, including verifying that they were properly classified, marked, and documented. As part of my training, I attended a safety seminar designed for shipping line employees, freight forwarders, and stevedores. The Coast Guard officer who presented the seminar began by dimming the lights and projecting a photo of a large cargo ship on a screen at the front of the room. Suddenly the slide changed; in the next image the ship had been blown to pieces, with chunks of steel flying through the air and a huge fireball and black smoke filling the sky above what was left of the hull. "This is what happens if you don't do your job right," the officer said. "Take it very, very seriously. People will die if you don't."
That was nearly 40 years ago, and I have never forgotten that image or the instructor's warning. They invariably came to mind each time I handled a hazmat shipment during the 10 years I was an export traffic manager. And they were front of mind again earlier this month, when an explosion that originated in a hazardous materials warehouse destroyed a large area in and around the port of Tianjin, China.
For anyone involved in international trade, the news photos of 40-foot ocean containers that had been twisted, crushed, and tossed like empty soda cans by the blasts were shocking. But that is a truly minor consideration compared to the loss of human life and the innumerable injuries suffered by people who lived nearby.
Which brings us to the title of this commentary. Because someone—business owners, real estate developers, local government officials, maybe all of the above—did not take the risks of storing and transporting hazardous materials very, very seriously, companies were allowed to construct apartment and office buildings dangerously close to huge quantities of those materials. And because someone—the warehouse operator, and perhaps its customers—did not care enough to do everything possible to eliminate those risks, hundreds of people are dead, injured, or missing.
Safe handling of dangerous goods in transport and storage requires appropriate training, strict discipline, constant vigilance, ferocious attention to detail, and an unflagging commitment by every employee at every point in the supply chain to follow the rules and always do the right thing—no matter how difficult, costly, or time consuming that may be. It is challenging, of course, to enforce such practices across supply chains that span the globe. But as the events at Tianjin make painfully clear, failure to do so could have tragic consequences.