These date back to 1982, when the first set of safety requirements were introduced following a major accident at Seveso in Italy, where large quantities of dioxins were released into the atmosphere. The legislation was updated in 1996 under the 'Seveso II' directive on the control of major accident hazards involving dangerous substances, in the light of other disasters such as those at Bhopal, India and Mexico City.
While, mercifully, Slovakia has not seen any major industrial accidents on such a tragic scale, there have been a number of less serious accidents in recent years, including an explosion at the VSŽ steel mill that killed 11 people, a fatal release of chlorine at industrial agriculture firm Duslo Šala, and a release of ammonia from the Bratislava ice hockey stadium.
Perhaps the four most important principles underlying the 'Seveso II' directive are:
First, sites are screened for their potential danger on the basis of the quantity of dangerous substances present (or potentially present).
Second, operators of these sites are required to demonstrate to the relevant authorities that they understand the risks posed by their activities, and have measures in place to limit these to acceptable levels.
Third, the authorities must ensure that there is an acceptable distance between a hazardous plant and centres of population in their land-use planning procedures.
Finally, operators must put in place and regularly test and review arrangements for what to do in the event of an emergency ('emergency plans'). The aim of the directive is therefore to prevent accidents and to ensure that, if accidents do occur, their consequences are minimised by effective response.
At the heart of the process lies quantification and assessment of risk. EU occupational health and safety law requires all employers to assess the risks posed to employees by their work, and to take steps to minimise these.
But in the context of major industrial hazards, these requirements are considerably more rigorous. Operators must demonstrate that they have a major-accident prevention policy and a safety management system for implementing it, and that major-accident hazards have been identified and the measures necessary to prevent and limit the consequences of these have been taken.
They must also demonstrate that adequate safety and reliability have been incorporated into the design, construction, operation and maintenance of any relevant equipment.
The precise requirements, however, depend upon the quantities of hazardous substances present on a given site, with upper tier sites - containing larger volumes of hazardous substances - subject to more extensive requirements than those at lower-tier levels. The Environment Ministry believes that around 78 sites will fall into this lower tier and 48 into the higher one.
The costs associated with legislation compliance take three main forms. First, there are the costs of operator staff time in preparing the necessary safety report and other documentation, as well as meeting other requirements such as the implementation of a safety management system.
Second, most employers are likely to employ consultants to assist with the process. The assessment of risk is a highly technical process, and it is generally not cost-effective to develop this specialist capability in-house.
Finally, there may be physical and potentially costly changes to plant and equipment necessary to ensure that they are safe.
The legislation implementing the directive in Slovakia is due to be discussed by the government on June 30, and the Environment Ministry is hoping to get it on the statute books by the beginning of next year. Companies holding significant quantities of hazardous substances would do well to prepare for the law sooner rather than later, and thus minimise costs and disruption by spreading the process out over a longer period.
Next month: Environmental safety and integrated management systems - what are they, what are their benefits?
Tim Young heads AEA Technology's Bratislava office. He can be reached at email@example.com