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Gas code changes needed following fatal explosion

04 February 2010

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is set to consider two urgent recommendations that US fuel gas codes be changed to improve safety when gas pipes are being purged during maintenance or installation of new piping.

Gas code recommendations needed following deadly ConAgra explosion
Gas code recommendations needed following deadly ConAgra explosion

The recommendations – to be voted on by board members at a CSB public meeting in Raleigh on the 4th February – grow out of the CSB’s ongoing federal investigation into the natural gas explosion at the ConAgra Slim Jim production facility in Garner, North Carolina, last June, which killed four, left three with critical life-threatening burn injuries, and sent a total of 67 people to hospital.

In preliminary findings, CSB investigators determined that the catastrophic explosion resulted from the accumulation of significant amounts of natural gas that had been purged indoors from a new 120 ft long pipe during the startup of a water heater in the plant that made Slim Jims, a popular beef-jerky product. During pipe purging, workers feed pressurised gas into a pipe in order to displace air or other gases so that only pure fuel gas remains in the piping when it is connected to an appliance such as a water heater or boiler.

CSB Chairman John Bresland said: "The board is very concerned that companies across the country continue to purge pipes indoors, and this evening we will consider recommendations to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the American Gas Association (AGA) and the International Code Council (ICC). Currently, the codes of the NFPA and ICC do not require gases to be vented outdoors or define adequate ventilation or hazardous conditions, nor do they require the use of combustible-gas detectors during these operations. The CSB recommendations, if adopted, would urge that these things be done."

The NFPA and the ICC are prominent organisations whose codes are used and followed by government bodies, private organisations and individuals nationwide.

CSB investigations supervisor Donald Holmstrom said his team made the recommendations to the board during the course of the ConAgra investigation after discovering gaps in the fuel gas codes. "Purging flammable gases into building interiors is a recipe for disaster. At ConAgra, we determined the accident would not have happened had the gas been vented safely outdoors through a hose or pipe." Holmstrom noted that since the June 2009 accident, ConAgra has instituted strict policies on purging, requiring it be done to safe outdoor locations.

As proposed, the CSB recommendations would urge the NFPA, the American Gas Association (AGA), and the ICC to enact tentative interim and then permanent changes to the National Fuel Gas Code. These would require that purged gases shall be vented "to a safe location outdoors, away from personnel and ignition sources." In cases where outdoor venting is not possible, companies would be required to seek a variance from local officials before purging gas indoors, including approval of a risk evaluation and hazard control plan. The recommendation would also require the use of combustible gas detectors to continuously monitor gas concentrations; the training of personnel about the problems of odour fade and odour fatigue; and warnings against the use of odour alone for detecting releases of fuel gases.

The CSB issued a safety bulletin in October 2009 entitled "Dangers of Purging Gas Piping into Buildings." The bulletin’s key lesson is: "Purging new or existing gas piping into a building can be highly hazardous due to the possible accumulation of gas … and the associated danger of fire and explosion." It notes that large numbers of workers are at risk, including plumbers, gas installers, maintenance workers, contract supervisors, and industrial facility managers.

Holmstrom said: "The CSB has examined several other similar accidents in which gas was purged indoors and not detected. We have determined that workers cannot rely on their sense of smell to warn them of danger, in part because people become desensitised to the odourant added to natural gas and propane. Gas detectors must be used."

Other incidents examined by the CSB include: a 1999 explosion at a Ford power plant in Dearborn, Michigan, killing six, injuring 38, and causing a $1 billion property loss; a 2008 explosion at a Hilton Hotel under construction in San Diego, California that injured fourteen people; a 2005 school explosion in Porterville, California, burning two plumbers; and an explosion at a hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 2007 severely burning two plumbers.

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