JRC study: Challenges and opportunities for assessing global progress in reducing chemical accident risks

May 20, 2020

Significant chemical accident hazards are present in a wide variety of industries, with vast differences in the substances, processes, technology and equipment that create the risk. Recently there has been increased reflection at international level on how to measure the impacts of regulation of chemical accident risk, and its effectiveness in reducing the risk. This article describes a study by the Major Accident Hazards Bureau (MAHB) of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) that addresses the widespread lack of data for assessing chemical accident risk globally, and offers insights to national and international governments on what kinds of data could be useful in understanding what geographic regions might be vulnerable to such disasters.


As is highlighted by the study, at present there are very limited data collected for assessing the status of chemical accident risk globally. Some sources of data on chemical accidents in government and industry can be used to quantify the frequency and severity of some types of events, but they fall far short of covering all chemical accidents in industry and commerce globally. The heterogeneous nature of chemicals, the infinite ways in which chemical engineering transforms chemicals into products, and the vast infrastructure of road, pipelines, ships and railways, facilitating product distribution, are intrinsic to the challenge of assessing global chemical accident risk and predicting the next catastrophe.


The study provides several conclusions, as a starting point for discussions about how countries can improve their knowledge about their vulnerability to chemical accident risk:


* An assessment of chemical accident risk reduction is imperative, to improve policy decision-making in and allocation of resources to this policy area. However, there is still a long way to go in establishing appropriate measures and collecting the required data.

* Further international dialogue may be needed to consolidate knowledge and experience, make recommendations to countries still lacking assessment methods, and test some ideas.

* Substantial reflection and coordination at an international level will be required to identify measures that are applicable in a broad range of countries with varying levels of industrial activity, institutional arrangements and practices for governing industrial risk, and cultural and social characteristics.

* Particularly in the last decade, innovative ideas have emerged that can form the basis for international recommendations for data collection and development of implementation models.

* The complexity of improving risk management can be a daunting task for emerging economies, and systematic measurement can help them prioritize and target problematic areas.

* Risk assessment must cover all hazard sources (fixed facilities, transport, pipelines, and offshore facilities), as well as non-chemicals industries using dangerous substances that require hazard control.

* The low frequency of severe chemical accidents in many developed countries means that incident data for any one country or industry, or across several countries and sites, are not a reliable indicator of underlying risk, particularly in locations where a certain level of risk control already exists. These data are a starting point but must be coupled with data and information representing leading indicators.

* It will take some years to establish, test and implement these recommendations so that more countries are encouraged to establish and implement their own assessment strategies. The many countries that are already leading the way could perhaps hasten the process, by way of example.


Full details of the JRC study on global progress in reducing chemical accident risks, are provided in Wood and Fabbri (2019).


Maureen Wood and Lucciano Fabbri

European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC)


For more information:




Wood, M.H.and L. Fabbri. 2019. Challenges and opportunities for assessing global progress in reducing chemical accident risks. Progress in Disaster Science, Volume 4, 100044. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pdisas.2019.100044

CAPTION FOR FIGURE: [ Number of chemical incidents occurring in 2017, based on reports in the global media. From: Wood and Fabbri (2019). ]

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