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Fatal incidents at two DuPont chemical plants reveal safety failings

11 November 2015

Reports by the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) have revealed a string of flawed safety procedures, design problems and inadequate planning at two DuPont plants where recent fatal incidents have occurred. Four workers were killed at the LaPorte plant in Texas on November 15, 2014, and one worker was killed and another injured at the Yerkes plant north of Buffalo, NY, on November 9, 2010.

The incident at the DuPont LaPorte plant involved four workers being overwhelmed by methyl mercaptan, a toxic gas used to make jet fuel and insecticides, after the substance mixed with water and froze in the plant’s piping. When the pipes were cleared, the gas vented into a room where staff were working.

DuPont did not specify that workers need breathing protection for draining the pipes and the plant was found to have “long-standing” issues with the vent pipers, the CSB found after a seven-month investigation. Furthermore, investigators found an inadequate toxic gas detection system, and broken rooftop ventilation fans.

Since the accident, DuPont has improved its process hazard analyses, improved the La Porte building’s exhaust and ventilation systems and modified its gas relief systems, detectors and alarms.

“We value the CSB’s perspective and we are taking their recommendations seriously,” LaPorte plant manager James O’Connor said in a released statement. “The LaPorte plant is shut down and will remain so until DuPont has executed a comprehensive and integrated plan to safely resume operations.”

A $99,000 fine was imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in May after an initial inquiry found problems in the LaPorte insecticide unit, but further scrutiny found safety violations elsewhere at the plant and additional fines of $273,000 were announced.

In interviews earlier this year, OSHA director David Michaels called these fines "petty cash" for the multibillion-dollar company and said he wished he could impose harsher penalties. But he said shining a spotlight on a company would send a message to employers nationwide.

“We have concerns about the safety culture,” Michaels said. “We expect chemical facilities where highly toxic materials are used to have a culture that focuses on ensuring worker protection. Here it appears to have broken down.”

The agency also enrolled the company in its “Severe Violator Enforcement Program,” which concentrates on inspecting employers who have “demonstrated indifference towards creating a safe and healthy workplace.” The program mandates follow-up inspections and inclusion must have come as a real shock for a company long considered a worldwide leader in process safety.

The Yerkes plant incident involved a chemical explosion and fire which occurred when flammable vinyl fluoride leaked into a process tank and exploded. A contract welder at the DuPont plant died and another worker was badly burned.

The two casualties were working on a supposedly empty 10,800-gallon storage tank used to hold slurry involved in the production of photovoltaic panels, but flammable vinyl fluoride vapour had flowed into the tank from interconnected tanks undetected. The vapour ignited while welding was taking place on top of the tank.

The CSB concluded that hazards had been overlooked by DuPont, which an investigation by the environment Protection Agency (EPA) subsequently confirmed.

DuPont will pay a $724,000 fine to settle violations from the Yerkes incident on top of $7 million worth of safety-related improvement already carried out and additional investment in equipment and training for the local fire brigade.

An investigation revealed “several areas of the facility’s operations … had been in violation of the Clean Air Act,” according to the EPA.

Warren Hoy, the DuPont Yerkes plant manager, said the company has already acted on recommendations from the investigations conducted by the CSB, EPA, OSHA and its own internal investigation.

Among the improvements, DuPont has upgraded its process to analyse potential vinyl fluoride hazards, took action to reduce the risks relating to vinyl fluoride vapours, changed the configuration of the equipment to reduce the chance of dangerous gas build-up, installed new controls and additional protective equipment and improved processes and operating procedures at all of its facilities to avoid a similar incident.

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