Mitsui Chemicals

Professor Emeritus Ogawa and President Tannowa Discuss Safety
After Five Years, We are Entering a New Stage of Safety Assurance

Among a host of measures aimed at putting safety first as its top priority in everything that it does, the Mitsui Chemicals Group has worked diligently to instill a firm commitment to fundamental safety while fostering a culture of safety. In this regard, reinforcing those competitive strengths that are deeply rooted in ensuring safety provides the cornerstone of the Group’s management as well as the impetus for carrying out its 2025 Long-term Business Plan.
Five years have now passed since the explosion and fire at Mitsui Chemicals’ Iwakuni-Ohtake Works resorcinol production facility. With the completion of the Safety Reconstruction Project at the Works in FY2016, we now embark on a new phase in our operating and safety endeavors.
Here in this Special Feature, we report on a discussion between Dr. Terushige Ogawa, Emeritus Professor of Yokohama National University and Executive Director of the Research Institute for Safety Engineering, who served as chairman of the Iwakuni-Ohtake Works Resorcinol Production Facility Accident Investigation Committee since 2012 and Mitsui Chemicals’ president and CEO, Tsutomu Tannowa, about the wide-ranging onsite activities undertaken and future initiatives going forward.

* Please refer here for details of the fire that broke out at the Mobara Branch Factory in July 2017.

Terushige Ogawa, Ph.D

Professor Emeritus at Yokohama National University,
Senior Managing Director at the Research Institute for Safety Engineering

Completed Master’s Degree at Graduate School of Engineering, Kyoto University
Doctor of Engineering, Kyoto University
Professor at Engineering at Yokohama National University
Professor at Graduate School of Engineering, Yokohama National University
Professor at Graduate School of Environment and Information Sciences, Yokohama National University
Professor Emeritus at Yokohama National University
Chairman of the Explosion and Fire Accident Investigation Committee at Mitsui Chemical’s Iwakuni-Ohtake Works
Explosion safety engineering, science of energetic material, safety engineering of chemical processes
Committee appointments:
Chairman of Japan Explosives Society, Chairman of Japan Society of Safety Engineering, Chairman of Japan Society of Safety Engineering’s Safety Competency Center Management Committee, Member of Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry Advisory Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Member of Industrial Structure Council’s Process Safety Subcommittee, etc.
2013 Received the Prime Minister’s Award for Contribution to Safety

Remembering the Lessons Learned from Past Accidents

―― Five years ago on April 22, an -explosion and fire occurred at the resorcinol production facilities of Iwakuni-Ohtake Works. Today, we remember this accident in a frank discussion with Dr. Ogawa, who headed the Accident Investigation Committee.

On that day, a young employee, one of those who represent the future of Mitsui Chemicals, perished in the devastating accident. As I looked upon the terrible aftermath of the explosion and fire, I was painfully reminded of the importance of safety at chemical plants. I am well aware that Mitsui Chemicals maintains a high level of safety throughout the entire company. Nonetheless, this accident happened, a telling example of the challenges in ensuring genuine safety.
I visited the site in early May, soon after the accident, and to this day I still clearly remember the shock I felt. Prior to the accident, I had been to the site on many occasions as the general manager of the Industrial Chemicals Division, and I was at a loss for words when I saw the devastation wrought on the plant. I feel great sorrow for losing a precious member of the Mitsui Chemicals family, and deeply regret inconveniencing local residents, government officials, and our customers. Although five years have passed since the accident, I strongly believe we must keep our memory of the accident fresh in our hearts and minds.

Improving Safety Awareness, Refining the Ability to Take the Initiative

―― In the Accident Investigation Committee’s report on the accident, Dr. Ogawa wrote that even if weaknesses existed in safety, the accident would not have occurred if functions designed to supplement those weaknesses had been working effectively.

What do you think must take place on a daily basis at worksites to ensure the effectiveness of functions intended to supplement areas of weakness regarding safety ?
Ensuring safety is not an easy task, and there is no magic formula to be learned. Currently, each of our worksites has appropriate safety measures in place, but conditions on the ground are constantly changing. Basically, this means new risks could appear at any time. In order to preempt the emergence of factors that lead to accidents, everyone on site must be vigilant and engage in safety activities every day without becoming complacent. While trying to avoid getting stuck in a routine, we must systematically identify our weak points and steadfastly work to fix each and every one of them.

―― Dr. Ogawa, you paid visits to Osaka Works in 2014 and Ichihara Works in 2015. What were your impressions of the undertakings at each facility ?

I came away with the impression that safety was being fervently practiced at both Osaka Works and Ichihara Works. Over time, the safety culture fostered at the two facilities has evolved slightly differently, but at both sites, everyone works diligently to ensure safety by combining their efforts with fundamental safety measures.
When I make the rounds at each Works, I can see that our employees’ approach to safety has changed dramatically. Just two years ago, when I was talking with former Chairman Higashi Ito of the Japan Society for Safety Engineering, he noted that worksites are where value is created, but also where accidents occur. This gave me pause to think about how important it is to have a comprehensive understanding of each worksite. I will continue to visit manufacturing sites and confirm with my own eyes that employees there are working with enthusiasm and energy.
Looking at safety practices at other companies, I notice that a variety of initiatives have been taken to ensure the intentions of top management are conveyed to and motivation instilled in all employees. Maintaining and improving safety levels across the Company as a whole can best be achieved by increasing the motivation of employees on the front lines as well as their sensitivity toward safety. Safety can, therefore, be enhanced by companies continuing to develop frameworks and organizations that allow employees to think about how safety can be improved and take independent action.

Reaching a New Stage, Continuing Best Safety Practices

―― Last year, Mitsui Chemicals completed a safety reinforcement project at Iwakuni-Ohtake Works. As the discussion turned to the next safety initiative, management reported its progress to relevant government authorities and the members of the Accident Investigation Committee, gaining their approval. What are your thoughts on the changes made at Iwakuni-Ohtake Works ?

At first, I think everyone at Iwakuni-Ohtake Works may have felt unsure about what the Company was trying to do. Despite every effort being made to ensure safety prior to the accident, the explosion and fire still occurred. Even though all agreed it was necessary to reassess safety activities from the ground up, I believe there may have been some resistance initially. As the entire Company came together as one to implement fundamental safety measures, however, everyone at the Works turned their eyes to the future and enthusiastically pulled together to reinforce safety. At the liaison meeting marking the tail end of the past five years’ efforts, I was relieved by the resolute progress that had been made. I believe that when considering safety, it is crucial that we raise the level at the bottom rather than merely aiming for an acceptable average. From this perspective, it is also essential to ascertain the outcomes of initiatives.
I feel the same. The magnitude of the shock experienced by our employees, including those at Iwakuni-Ohtake Works, is immeasurable. I believe our safety activities are on a firm footing; we have become aware of a number of ways to make improvements while reflecting on the accident and analyzing problems. As Dr. Ogawa said earlier, however, it is difficult to avoid eventually becoming complacent or less vigilant when constantly practicing safety measures. Even as we strive to flexibly respond on a daily basis to constantly changing conditions, we must continue to pass along the lessons learned from the resorcinol accident while sparing no effort in improving safety awareness and implementing best safety practices.

Ensuring Unwavering Safety through Changing Times

―― In November 2016, Mitsui Chemicals unveiled its 2025 Long-Term Business Plan. What are your thoughts on future safety initiatives ?

The resorcinol accident in 2012 put us in a very challenging situation as a company, including in terms of financial performance. From 2014, as progress was made under the Mid-Term Business Plan, we began to gradually see signs of recovery. Thanks to the tireless efforts of onsite employees, no devastating accidents or trouble have occurred since then. As the 2014 Mid-Term Business Plan was winding down, we unveiled our 2025 Long-Term Business Plan, communicating our intended future direction both internally and externally. Our employees’ positivity and willingness to take on new challenges are critical to the future of the Mitsui Chemicals Group. The business environment is likely to change considerably by 2025 as Mitsui Chemicals moves more quickly toward becoming a truly global corporation. It is my wish that employees take on new challenges with optimism, infusing new ideas into safety activities and new techniques for performing work.
Employees are becoming more diverse at business sites in Japan. Looking at operations from a global point of view, it is difficult to push forward a uniform set of safety activities given the different nationalities and cultures of diverse employees. I believe it is essential to have a system based on PDCA while sharing information daily and raising safety awareness among all employees.
I agree. It would be difficult to take a uniform approach to safety activities on a global basis as there are some major aspects of safety that only a local employee would understand. In the past, there were some safety problems overseas, and safety experts were dispatched from the Head Office on a roughly two-year basis to advise on safety measures. The results were good. I believe initiatives like this will become increasingly necessary in the future.
With regard to personnel training, I have long been involved in school education, and have come to understand the importance of education through dialogue at worksites. A lecture is a one-way mode of communication and insufficient to imparting a true understanding of a topic. Through the exchange of opinions, knowledge is spread and thoughts deepened. By advancing dialogue-based training, the aim is for employees to not just to pick up new skills and techniques but also grow as human beings..
A proactive attitude nurtured in this way can play a critical foundational role in maintaining and improving worksite safety. In discussions about safety at each facility, section managers, and other line management-level employees have become more confident in their speech, and I hear that more and more employees at worksites use the singular “I” rather than the plural “we” in conversation. This is revealing in that it indicates that employees are approaching work problems and issues as matters of personal consequence, thinking and taking action on their own to find solutions. I am pleased beyond words that this change is occurring in an increasing number of employees. This has had a positive impact on section managers who are at the heart of the worksites, the chiefs and foremen who work under them, as well as the employees working onsite. As they collaborate, I believe this change will have a positive impact on the entire workplace.

―― Along with increased globalization, technology is becoming more sophisticated, as shown by IoT and Big Data. As a company, how will Mitsui Chemicals tackle advances in technology ?

Gathering, processing and utilizing data about corporate activities has become increasingly important. In my opinion, it will be challenging to build optimized frameworks onsite without the development of more advanced systems. In addition to its own technologies, I assume Mitsui Chemicals will have to cooperate with other companies in order to fully address the changing times.
I agree. Member companies of the Japan Petrochemical Industry Association, where I am chairman, have begun to disclose, accumulate, and utilize their safety-related data. Although where to draw the line on data disclosure is a delicate issue, and the utilization of such data may become more difficult, by analyzing points in common across the companies and other trends, I hope a new type of information sharing will emerge.

Strong Safety Awareness Requires Everyone to Stay Vigilant

Being safe means staying vigilant and insisting on best practices. However, people have a tendency to choose the easier route. One can become complacent in one’s daily routine, making a good-enough effort that will be sufficient as long as nothing serious happens. More than anything else, this is the terrifying moment when safety becomes compromised. Especially when financial performance is strong and expectations for growth are high, businesses tend to lose sight of risks. Unexpected pitfalls lurk unseen. I hope Mitsui Chemicals stays true to its course of action, continuing to share information daily and staying vigilant with a high awareness of safety.
Five years have passed since the accident. As president, I must engrave this memory on my heart and impress upon employees the importance of safety. The survival and prosperity of the Mitsui Chemicals Group depends, as ever, on a management policy that makes safety our top priority a and the establishment of a culture of safety. We will continue to emphasize the importance of safety at all times in our messages to our employees. Five years after the accident, our safety activities have reached a new stage, but we will never forget the lessons learned from the accident and continue to steadily implement our safety activities.

Interviewer : Atsushi Deguchi
General Manager, Safety & Environment Technology Division, Production & Technology Sector