Here’s why Serum Institute of India’s recent fire accident reveals lessons learnt the hard way in Enterprise Risk Management

Institute of India
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A fatal blaze in one production facility at the Serum Institute of India (SII) SEZ plant in Manjri on 21st January, in Pune shocked everyone.

Fire sparks generated during the construction work combined with inflammable materials such as PVC, plastic, acrylic and plywood present there trapped and asphyxiated the workers killing 5 of them. Ten fire tenders, one team of NDRF (National Disaster Response Fund) totalling about 70 personnel were reported to be involved in dousing the fire.

SII, one amongst the two main COVID-19 vaccine companies is producing the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine. SII, the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, is now an institution of pride in India, and global importance, saving millions of lives all over the world.

“Rotavirus plant installation was going on when welding sparks caused the fire due to highly inflammable material present at the spot. It took the local administration three hours to douse the fire completely. They have also recovered five bodies. Serum Institute pegs losses due to the fire at over Rs 1,000 crore” reports Rajesh Tope, Maharashtra’s State Health Minister.

The expert panel has been commissioned to undertake an audit to understand the cause of fire. The current debates in different media platforms point to the possibilities of accident as well as acts of sabotage. Experts caution that COVID 19 manufacturing companies can be highly vulnerable targets for cyber-attacks and other sophisticated attempts of sabotage.

While the investigation is in process, few facts based on available news in the media and net, from the point of enterprise risk management reveal the following lessons:

The company which is involved in the war against COVID-19, has been lackadaisical by lax fire safety protocol.

Once the fire broke out, there was a fire alarm, workers ran towards escape route but some were trapped. This clearly indicates that a site, having over Rs 1000 crs material including the inflammable materials, was lacking the security at site, emergency exit, provision of ventilation, oxygen masks, automatic sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers among other aspects required for fire management.

Industrial fire is common to any industry. How swift we stop and cope up its spread is most important. The earlier we control its spread, the better it is for safety of personnel and property. However, if fire is left uncontrolled, it is like having to handle a wild elephant who has lost his head!

SII, with a rise as worldwide WHO approved vaccine manufacturer, should have placed the highest safety standards , security norms like that which exist in space, defence and the petro-chemical industry. Risk management systems in such companies need to follow “zero tolerance safety standards’ absolutely and rigorously.

There should be a routine risk audit, preventive maintenance and mock drills – be it a running plant or under construction.

Unfortunately, most safety norms are adhered to in running plants, while at the construction side it is implemented either half-heartedly or entrusted to the contractors and fabricators. This exposes the workers with little or no knowledge about fire and safety norms, prone to accidents and fatal death.

It is always worth periodically upgrading and investing in modern technology in hazard prevention and it pays for itself in the long run. Lacklustre approach to risk management would cost irreparable damages to company’s’ reputation.

Our PM tweeted aptly over the incidence, “Anguished by the loss of lives due to an unfortunate fire at the @SerumInstIndia”. Needless to mention here, his anguish is towards failure of systems and safety norms, at the most coveted site, which has taken 5 lives and costed more than INR 1000 crores already.