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CSB report claims lax safety measures led to fatal Florida nitrous oxide plant blast

28 April 2017

The explosion of a nitrous oxide tanker truck at the Airgas manufacturing facility in Cantonment, Florida, was likely a result of inadequate safety measures at the facility, according to a newly released report by the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). The August 2016 explosion killed the tanker driver and heavily damaged the facility, halting nitrous oxide production indefinitely.

Trailer at the Airgas plant - Image: CSB
Trailer at the Airgas plant - Image: CSB

In a 146-page investigation report released on April 27, the CSB concluded the blast was most likely caused by a pump overheating during the transfer of nitrous oxide.

The findings include:
* Even though heat from the pump was a known hazard, Airgas did not evaluate safer design options that could have eliminated the need for the pump altogether.
* Airgas did not apply an essential industry safety instrumentation standard or key elements of a voluntary safe storage and handling standard, both of which are intended to prevent nitrous oxide explosions.
* Safeguards installed by the company — including flame arrestors and the safety interlock intended to automatically shut down the pump — were likely ineffective and failed to prevent the explosion.

In a statement, Airgas stated it appreciated the CSB's work in connection with the incident. The company said it worked cooperatively with the agency to review and respond to the incident.

"Our top priority is the safety of our associates, customers, and the communities in which we operate. We deeply regret the tragic loss of life, damage and disruption caused by the incident," the statement read.

Airgas also conducted a comprehensive review of its nitrous oxide production facilities, trucking fleet and filling operations after the incident, according to the statement.

The report noted federal regulations require that many types of chemical facilities that manufacture highly hazardous substances have comprehensive safety management systems in place to protect their workforce and the public. But the majority of those specialised rules do not apply to nitrous oxide facilities, according to the report.

The Airgas Cantonment facility is one of four manufacturing plants in the US that produce nitrous oxide for industrial facilities, hospitals and universities.

The CSB report stated the most likely scenario leading up to the Cantonment blast was that the tanker driver was transferring nitrous oxide from a storage tank to a shipping trailer. Investigators believe during the transfer, a pump heated nitrous oxide above its safe operating limits, causing a violent chemical reaction that caused the trailer to explode, despite the pump's safeguards.

The report identified Airgas' lack of an effective safety system as a contributing cause to the deadly blast.

"Nitrous oxide is a hazardous substance — facilities should have good safety management systems to mitigate the risks that exist," CSB Chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland said in a statement. "Safety management systems standards are critical to identify, evaluate and control process safety hazards. This tragedy in Cantonment should not be repeated."

In a separate investigation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found Airgas "did not furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees." The agency ultimately fined Airgas more than $12,000 for the incident.

Airgas has facilities in Cantonment, Mississippi and Ontario, Canada, and is owned by the French Air Liquide group. After the explosion, Airgas began safety reviews at all of its nitrous oxide production facilities, trucking fleets and cylinder-filling operations. The company has provided the CSB with periodic updates on the status of its safety initiatives and agreed to complete an array of safety improvement recommendations suggested in the report.

The CSB identified seven major explosion incidents in the nitrous oxide industry since 1973, including the Cantonment incident. Altogether, the explosions have resulted in 21 injuries and six deaths. Four of the seven blasts were caused by pump heat.

The CSB is an independent, non-regulatory agency. It does not issue citations or fines but makes safety recommendations to plants, industry organisations, labour groups and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

A budget proposed by President Donald Trump has proposed defunding the CSB. That budget still requires legislative approval.

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