OSHA: DuPont deadly gas leak was preventable

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited DuPont for eleven safety violations that caused or contributed to the deaths of four workers in November at the company’s chemical plant in La Porte, Texas.

In a media release about the results of its investigation into the cause of the workers’ death, OSHA said that the deaths could have been and should have been prevented.

“”Four people lost their lives and their families lost loved ones because DuPont did not have proper safety procedures in place,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “Had the company assessed the dangers involved, or trained their employees on what to do if the ventilation system stopped working, they might have had a chance.”

DuPont has been fined $99,000 for its negligence.

The workers were killed by a deadly vapor of methyl mercaptan that escaped after it had leaked from its storage vessel into pipes. It was then unknowingly released into a venting system as workers were performing maintenance.

Among other things, OSHA cited DuPont for not correcting equipment deficiencies, failing to train employees about respiratory hazards such as methyl mercaptan, failing to train workers in the proper method for responding to a chemical leak, and failing to require the use of respiratory equipment that could have saved the workers’ lives.

Methyl mercaptan is a deadly chemical used in the manufacture of pesticides. It can paralyze the respiratory system which then leads to death.

Three of the workers were killed while trying to rescue the first worker overcome by methyl mercaptan.

An earlier investigation of the deadly vapor release in La Porte  by the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) found a number of safety problems at the DuPont plant.

“The release (of methyl mercaptan) occurred through a valve that was opened as part of a routine effort to drain liquid from the vent system in order to relieve pressure inside,” said former CSB Chairman Rafael Moure Eraso while testifying before a congressional committee in February. “We found that this vent system had a history of periodic issues with unwanted liquid build-up, and the valve in question was typically drained directly into the work area inside the building, rather than into a closed system.

“In addition, our investigators have found that the building’s ventilation fans were not in service, and that the company did not effectively implement good safety practices requiring personnel to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) that was present at the facility.”

Moure Eraso also cited the lack of safety culture at Du Pont and gave two examples:

One occurred in January 2010 when a faulty hose at a DuPont plant in Belle, West Virginia caused phosgene gas to leak killing one worker. The other happened later in 2010 at the DuPont plant in Buffalo, New York when a welding spark ignited leaking gas and caused an explosion that sent hot metal shards flying through the plant. Fortunately, no one was killed.

The charge that a safety culture is lacking at DuPont may seem out of place to some because DuPont management spends a lot of time conducting safety meetings and stressing the importance of avoiding injuries that could lead to lost work time.

But Safety/News Alert reports that DuPont’s safety efforts seem to be aimed primarily at avoiding personal injuries rather than focusing on process safety issues, which can be more difficult and more expensive to address.

The Houston Chronicle reports that DuPont’s inattention to safety standards has come at the same time that DuPont is paying more attention to cutting costs.

According to the Chronicle, “the deaths in La Porte brought the total to eight fatalities at DuPont sites in the last seven years. And it all happened as the company undertook an aggressive campaign to reinvent itself, by boosting productivity, selling off assets and slashing costs.”

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