Supply of Disposable Diapers Threatened by Explosion at Chemical Plant

By Kim Smiley

On September 29, 2012, an explosion at a chemical plant in Japan killed a fire fighter, injured 35 others and did significantly damage.  Chemicals produced at the plant are used in disposable diapers.  The damaged plant will be inoperable for the foreseeable future, which will likely impact the global supply of disposable diapers, a thought that strikes fear in the hearts of many parents of small children.

This incident can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, an intuitive, visual format for performing a root cause analysis.  The first step in building a Cause Map is to identify which goals were affected.  In this case, the safety goal is obviously impacted since there was a fatality and injuries.  The production goal is also a major consideration since the supply of disposable diapers is threatened because the plant will be unable to produce chemicals for a significant amount of time.  The next step is to ask “why” questions to add additional boxes to the Cause Map.

Starting with the safety goal first, we would ask “why” there was a fatality and injuries.  In this example, people were hurt because there was a fire at a chemical plant.  The fire occurred because a tank exploded and it was near other tanks full of flammable chemicals.  The tank exploded because the temperature inside the tank was increasing and it wasn’t cooled in time.  It isn’t clear yet why the temperature was increasing inside the tank, but investigators are working to find the cause.  Once it is known, it can be added to the Cause Map.

At the time of the explosion, efforts were underway to cool off the tank, but they weren’t effective.  Firefighters were working to spray down the tank with cool water to help lower the temperature, but the temperature rose too quickly.  This is also a cause of the fatality.  A fireman was working to connect spray lines near the tank at the time it exploded and he was sprayed with hot chemicals.  Other injuries occurred at the time of explosion and others were sustained during the effort to fight the fire.  It’s possible that one of the reasons that the workers were unable to cool the tank was that the usual method of cooling the tank, injecting nitrogen to decrease the oxygen and control the chemical reactions occurring, might not have been functioning properly.  This is another area that can be clarified on the Cause Map as more information is known.

Looking at the production goal now, a potential shortage of disposable diapers may occur as a result of this accident because the plant produced a significant amount of a chemical used in manufacturing diapers.  This plant produced 20% of world’s supply of one chemical in particular needed for diapers.  Combine this with the fact that the other plants manufacturing this chemical are already operating at maximum capacity and the supply will likely be less than the demand.

The final step in the process is to use the Cause Map to develop solutions to help prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.  It’s premature to discuss specific solutions in this example since the investigation is still ongoing, but the initial Cause Map can easily be expanded and used when all the information is available.