Positive legacy of Seveso

Ben Axelsen | 21 Jul 2016 | Comments

Seveso 40th anniversary: COMAH regulations 2015 highlight positive legacy

Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of the Seveso industrial accident which occurred on Saturday 10 July 1976. The incident was the result of an explosion at the Icmesa chemical plant which led to the release of a highly toxic cloud vapour. This impacted on the nearby Italian town of Seveso, causing grave illness to local residents and further devastation to thousands of livestock.

The accident resulted in the European Union introducing the Seveso Directive. A legislation designed to control dangerous substances through identification of sites, control measures to prevent major accidents and mitigation measures to limit the effects of accidents when they do occur.

The largest major accident to take place in the UK was at the Buncefield Oil Storage Depot in Hertfordshire on Sunday 11 December 2005. A fuel vapour cloud, caused by overfilling a tank, resulted in an explosion which was heard as far away as the Netherlands. The subsequent fire was described as the largest in peacetime Europe taking 5 days to extinguish. Over 2,000 people were evacuated, parts of the M1 closed and the nearby Maryland Industrial Estate was severely damaged. Thankfully only 40 people were injured and there were no fatalities which was attributed to the incident occurring early on a Sunday morning.


The incident at Buncefield highlighted the potential for major accidents to occur at industrial sites and the importance therefore of legislation in ensuring their safety. The Seveso Directive is implemented in Great Britain through the Control of Major Accident Hazard (COMAH) Regulations. The COMAH Regulations 2015 incorporate the updates within Seveso III and came into force on the 1 June 2015.

Operators of new and existing sites are required to complete a new notification to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) which is the Competent Authority in the UK. This is to review their schedule under the revised classification, packaging and labelling of chemical substances and mixtures (CLP) thresholds and determining whether they are an Upper Tier or Lower Tier site. All sites are required to provide the public with basic information about their site online through a new website. Upper Tier site operators are required to update their Safety Reports and Lower Tier site operators have a more explicit requirement for an internal emergency plan. The regulations now place a duty on Local Authorities to inform people likely to be affected following a major accident and require Category 1 Responders to cooperate in tests of the external emergency plan.

The latest report from the European Commission on application of Seveso covers the period of 2009-2011. The report found that despite the large increase in the number of establishments over the last decade, the number of major accidents has remained relatively stable with a decreasing number of fatalities and injuries. These improvements in safety are supplemented by embedding learning from incidents within Seveso III.

I believe that the disaster at Seveso has left a positive legacy which is seen through the increased safety at industrial sites across Europe. The challenge for everyone involved in COMAH sites is to maintain that determination for continual improvement and avoid the risk of becoming complacent, a major contributor of historic incidents. There is now a challenge for the updates contained within the new regulations to be effectively embedded into arrangements for operators, multi-agency partners and within information provided to the public. I personally feel that there is currently too much information available to stakeholders in a cumbersome format that does not lend to efficient application. We now have an opportunity to further improve COMAH by developing simple, accessible and relevant information which is available to stakeholders at their point of need.

For further information on delivering innovative COMAH (or other emergency planning and business continuity) solutions please contact Ben Axelsen or Nick Rushall.