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Pharmaceutical plant explosion kills worker, injures four others

09 May 2023

One worker was killed and four were injured after an explosion partially destroyed a pharmaceutical plant in Massachusetts, US on 4 May. The incident happened at a facility operated by chemical manufacturer Seqens in the city of Newburyport, 35 miles (56 km) northeast of Boston.

Image: Newburyport Fire Department
Image: Newburyport Fire Department

The explosion, which occurred at 00:45 local time, partially destroyed the roof of the facility and blew an industrial-sized vat from inside the facility to around 30 feet away. Acting Chief of the Newburyport Fire Department Stephen Bradbury said in a statement that five workers were in the building at the time of the explosion. Four were taken to a local hospital, where they were treated and released.

Search and rescue efforts for a fifth worker who was initially missing were made difficult by the major structural damage to the facility. The body of a missing worker was recovered at around 17:30 and was confirmed to be 62-year-old Jack O’Keefe, an employee at the facility.

Newburyport Firefighters and State Hazmat technicians remained overnight at the scene of before resuming the intensive work of removing potential hazards from the badly damaged building. Approximately four dozen large barrels containing chemicals including acetone, methanol and isopropyl alcohol were painstakingly removed from the building, the fire department said.

As a result of the blast, the building — a metal addition on the rear of the larger facility — suffered significant structural damage. City officials have ordered Seqens to commence demolition of the building addition where the explosion occurred due to the structural damage.

As part of the ongoing response, air meters were set up around the scene’s perimeter and have continued to show no hazards in the air. Newburyport Fire officials emphasized that there is no danger to the public.

On 8 May, hazardous materials technicians and crews remained on scene removing the final eight 55-gallon drums of chemicals, and draining approximately 2,000 gallons of chemicals from chemical reactors at the plant.

Environmental cleanup crews attended the scene assessing any impact the incident may have caused to local streams. Crews from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the US Environmental Protection Agency remain on scene as well. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also attended the scene.

The cause of the explosion is under investigation by the Newburyport Fire Department and State Police Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit attached to the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

The Seqens plant has had previous process safety incidents, most notably in 2020 when authorities said a chemical reaction caused a series of explosions. The incident came just a year after OSHA had found “serious” violations in how the company managed hazardous chemicals.

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