Unions seek a bigger role in DuPont’s safety program

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.

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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.”

Investigation begins into the deaths of four workers at a DuPont plant in Texas

Inspectors from the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) arrived Monday morning at the DuPont insecticide plant in LaPorte, Texas to begin their investigation into the causes of a chemical leak at the plant that killed four workers on November 15.

The workers died after inhaling methyl mercaptan released into air at the plant.

A fifth worker at the plant was hospitalized and released.

“Our initial investigation plans are to examine the accident site (and) conduct initial interviews with witnesses, if any, as well as key operators and managers,” said Dr. Daniel Horowitz, the leader of the investigating team. “(We’ll) request documentation on a range of relevant activities, such as maintenance histories of key equipment, training, and work schedules.”

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents.

According to CSB, the agency has investigated DuPont plants before. In 2010, it investigated a flammable vapor explosion at the DuPont plant in Buffalo, New York. Also in 2010, the agency investigated three leaks that took place during a 33 hour period at the company’s plant in Belle, West Virginia.

During one of the leaks in Belle, a worker was overcome and killed by phosgene gas. The gas was released when a hose carrying it burst open and sprayed the deadly gas into the air.

A CSB report issued in 2011 on the incident said that there were “preventable safety shortcomings” at the plant including “failure to maintain the mechanical integrity of the a critical phosgene hose.”

Phosgene, which was used as poisonous gas during World War I and remained in use afterwards as an agent used in making insecticides, is a corrosive that can cause leaks and fraying in hoses unless the hoses are replaced regularly.

CSB said that the kind of hoses used at the Belle plant should have been replaced once a month, but they weren’t.

“I would hope the DuPont officials are examining the safety culture company-wide,” said the then CSB Director John Bresland at the time that the report was released.

In a press statement about the phosgene leak in 2010, CSB said that back in 1987, the company realized the dangers involved in using the stainless steel hoses lined with Teflon that were carrying phosgene at the plant.

The company considered switching to hoses line with Monel, a strong metal alloy much better at resisting corrosion than Teflon.

DuPont, however, decided not to do so because the Monel coated hoses cost more.

The company also considered increasing safety at the plant by enclosing the area where phosgene was handled and venting the enclosed area by using a scrubber system that eliminates phosgene that escapes into the air.

DuPont, according the press statement, decided that taking these safety steps was too expensive.

“Documents show that the company calculated the benefit ratio of potential lives saved compared to cost and decided not to make the safety improvements,” said the CSB in its statement.

Regarding the more recent worker deaths in Texas, CSB said that its investigation and final determination of the causes of the worker deaths could take up to a year but that the agency would release key information and facts about the deaths as they come to light.

CSB doesn’t have the authority to levy fines for safety violations; it can only make recommendations for preventing future safety failures.