Two union leaders have written a letter to DuPont and Chemours urging two companies to act on their publicly stated concern for workplace safety by allowing union safety experts to make regular visits to their chemical production facilities to help “identify and correct hazardous conditions.”
The unions said that unlike other employers for whom their members work, DuPont and Chemours have been unwilling to work with union health and safety experts to help improve process safety at their plants.
Earlier this year the US Chemical Safety Board reported that “complex process-related accidents with tragic results are taking place across the country at companies of all sizes” and cited three accidents at DuPont facilities.
The most recent accident took place in 2014 at a DuPont chemical plant in LaPorte, Texas where four workers died after inhaling methyl mercaptan, a toxic chemical used in the production of pesticides, that had leaked into a work area.
“We are writing out of deep concern for safety at DuPont’s current plants and in the former DuPont plants spun off July 1 into Chemours,” begins the letter signed by Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers (USW), and Frank Cyphers, president of the International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC).
The USW members work at DuPont and Chemour plants in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York; Edgemoor. Delaware; and Deepwater, New Jersey.
ICWUC members work at DuPont and Chemours plants in Parlin, New Jersey and LaPorte.
“It’s clear that there are very serious safety problems at DuPont and Chemours,” said Cyphers. “It’s critical that the two companies work in good faith with their employees and the unions representing them.”
“We have close relationships on safety and health with many employers,” said Gerard. “But in the past DuPont has rejected any involvement by union safety and health professionals. We have the right to represent our members on safety and health. We can do that through OSHA complaints and Labor Board charges, but we would greatly prefer to do that by working together on the basis of mutual respect.”
In addition to the fatal accident at LaPorte, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) cited two other accidents at DuPont that were caused by lax process safety measures.
One took place in 2010 at DuPont’s Buffalo facility where a welding spark ignited flammable vapors in a chemical storage tank causing an explosion that sent molten steel shooting through the air. Fortunately no one was killed.
CSB found that DuPont had not properly isolated the tank where the chemicals were stored and didn’t use proper gas detection units.
Another 2010 accident took place at a DuPont plant in Belle, West Virginia where a banded steel hose ruptured releasing toxic phosgene into the air killing one worker.
The safety board’s report found that the hose that ruptured was made from inferior and less expensive materials and hadn’t been replaced at the scheduled replacement time.
CSB also found that DuPont had not installed proper ventilation or alarm systems in the area where phosgene was stored.
At DuPont’s LaPorte facility, CSB also found that the ventilation system had been improperly installed and that it was designed poorly. The poor ventilation system allowed the deadly toxic leak into a work area. In addition, the ventilation fans weren’t working and there weren’t enough oxygen masks for rescue workers.
In an opinion piece appearing in the Houston Chronicle, Rena Steinzor, an expert on workplace safety law, called DuPont’s leak prevention and response in LaPorte, “shockingly inept.”
DuPont’s safety problems have come during a time when the company has been under pressure from private equity firms like Trian Management to create more shareholder value.
In response to this pressure, DuPont announced in 2014 that it would embark on a cost cutting campaign that is expected to achieve $1 billion a year in cost savings by 2019.
It’s unlikely that top DuPont executives told local facility managers to scrimp on safety to cut costs, but the temptation to forego maintenance and cut back on process safety can be great when excessively high cost cuts are demanded by managers’ bosses.
DuPont’s cost cutting culture may also explain why the company has been reluctant to work with union safety experts to make the company’s plants safer.
While DuPont remains reluctant to cooperate with unions on workplace safety issues, it has been much more obliging to its shareholders.
Last year, the company announced that it had authorized $5 billion to buy back stock from investors. Since then, the company has spent $2 billion on stock buy backs and said that it will continue to pursue its buy back program aggressively.