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CSB accuses DuPont of safety culture problem following LaPorte incident

06 February 2015

The gas release on November 15 that killed four workers at DuPont’s LaPorte plant in Texas was the chemical group’s third fatal US accident in five years. The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) asked DuPont to reform its chemical process safety rules after a West Virginia plant worker was exposed to a deadly gas in 2010, and again after a welder at a New York plant died working on a tank that filled with explosive gas.

The LaPorte  incident would not have happened if the company had not ignored a series of problems or had developed stronger safeguards to deal with them, according to a preliminary statement released by the CSB on February 5.

"What we're seeing here ... is definitely a problem of safety culture in the corporation of DuPont," CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said at a press briefing in Houston.

After months of investigations, the independent agency found a ventilation system had been broken that allowed an undetected build-up of methyl mercaptan, which becomes poisonous when mixed with air.

Dan Tillema, an investigator with the CSB, said the plant's insecticide production unit did not shut down despite alarms and a pipe blockage. The blockage should have triggered a formal process to review possible hazards, develop written procedures to address them and train employees, he said. Instead, a plan to clear the blockage was hatched and implemented in about a day, giving workers little or no time to think through possible problems.

Tillema said DuPont policies called for protective equipment such as respirators, but they were not used during the incident. Also, ventilation fans in the building were not working at the time of the release, and these may have saved the workers’ lives.

In a response to the CSB statement, DuPont spokesman Aaron Woods said:

"Yesterday, US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) Chairman Moure-Eraso, Board Member Erlich and other CSB officials toured the DuPont La Porte methomyl process unit to get a first-hand review of the agency's ongoing investigation. We appreciated the opportunity to engage in constructive discussions with the agency.

“Safety has been a core value and constant priority at DuPont since our founding. We first implemented safety rules in 1811 and we have been engaged in a continuous process to improve ever since. We are responding to this tragedy in a way that reinforces our absolute focus on safety and enables us to learn from it so that we can find ways to be an even better company.

“We have an expert team leading an intensive effort to understand exactly what happened - and how we can ensure that it never happens again.

“We remain committed to working with the CSB and other governmental agencies who are also conducting their own investigations. Investigating incidents such as these takes time and the issues often are technically complex. The results from these reviews will guide actions we take going forward.

“We are also committed to maintaining the integrity of the ongoing investigations. To that end, it is premature for us to comment or provide additional information outside of these processes."

The problems at one of the world's largest and most sophisticated chemical companies is seen by the CSB as yet another reason to update federal chemical safety standards that have not changed since the 1990s. President Barack Obama called for such changes after the explosion of a fertiliser plant in West which caused multiple fatalities, but the industry has resisted, arguing the worst safety lapses happen only at smaller, "outlier" companies.

There is no sign new rules will be adopted or that federal agencies will be given enough resources to enforce them - a situation that led to both lawmakers and Labor department officials expressing frustration at a December Senate hearing.

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