Chemically Burned: Dow Chemical Tries to Avoid Hot Water in Worker's Death

Brian Johns suffered chemical burns over 65 percent of his body in a Deer Park plant explosion. A representative of his company, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, tried to tell doctors Johns had just encountered some really hot water.

His sister Pam says he told her it was "like Superman" as he sailed through the air and smacked into the wall behind him. He was covered in the spray coming from the unit, and the chemicals burned through his clothes, through his skin, and started killing his muscles as he moved to get himself out of the ammonia recycling unit.

He made for the emergency showers, struggling to control his shaking hands, his juddering limbs, while his heart slammed and rattled in his chest. Just needed to clean this stuff off. Then he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror — half of his face looked like raw meat; the skin was mangled and coming off the burned places over more than half his body — and was about to resume walking toward the shower when a co-worker saw him and called 911.

Johns told his story to lawyers a week after the accident occurred, tears spilling down his face. He told them how the casing around the unit was old, how things like that went unreported at the plant because they would cost the company money. ­Instead of replacing the casing entirely, company men had rigged up the repairs. Then, when he was changing the filter, the unit ­exploded.

Pam Roberson, Brian Johns’s sister, says one company official tried to insist that her brother had just been injured by hot water.
Daniel Kramer
Pam Roberson, Brian Johns’s sister, says one company official tried to insist that her brother had just been injured by hot water.

Rusty Hardin and Bob Wynne, the Houston lawyers Roberson got in touch with a couple of days after the accident, sat around Johns's hospital bed recording the interview and taking notes while Roberson sat in the corner taking her own notes of what her brother said.

That was the first and last time he really talked about the explosion. It was also the beginning of the nightmares that would dog his dreams most nights for the final days of his life, his family says. Less than a month later, he was dead.

Only then did Dow report the explosion to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. If Johns had survived the accident, the company would never have had to report the explosion at all, aside from making a notation in its self-reporting books. Fox continued to insist that Johns had been burned only with hot water.

Since Johns's death, there have been more accidents at chemical plants and refineries, such as the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 15 and injured more than 200. West took the lack of inspections and investigation of these industrial sites and put a bullseye on the existence of an industrial world in which employees may be allowed to work in unsafe conditions without much government interference or regulation, until something blows up. The same day West exploded, 12 men were injured in another accident, at the ExxonMobil refinery in Beaumont.

Those are the kinds of incidents that grab the attention of OSHA, inspectors at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the public. But deaths and injuries like Johns's often get overlooked. When there's an injury, Texas workers' compensation law says that if the employee accepts the compensation, he loses the legal right to sue, according to Vaughan Stewart, a Lake Jackson lawyer who has represented workers against Dow many times since he moved to the area in 1968. However, if the employee dies, there's a loophole. In the wake of Johns's death, his family knew they were going to sue.
_____________________

Brian Johns grew up the youngest in a big family reared by Frances Sowell, a single mother, in Texas City. They all called him "The Kool-Aid Kid" because in every photo, he seemed to have a cup of the stuff. The older kids let him play with his superhero action figures while they took care of the chores. His only job was to make the Kool-Aid they always had with ­dinner.

While Brian was pretending to be faster than a speeding bullet and learning how to play football and basketball, Dow Chemical was already a byword in America. The company, based in Midland, Michigan, was a behemoth in the chemical industry and a symbol of the Vietnam War because of its production of the napalm and Agent Orange used by American troops in chemical warfare.

Dow came to Texas during World War II, settling in Lake Jackson, the company town Dow created. The U.S. government sold Dow the land for its first toehold in the state at ten cents on the dollar. The plant was one of many factories that sprang up along the coast, fueled by government encouragement and the needs of the U.S. war ­machine.

Factories like Dow's were descendants of the Industrial Revolution, massive works of twisted metal that made the chemicals and materials that became the components of everything from paint to household cleaning supplies and just about any other product that had chemical ingredients. The rise of mass production required mass-produced chemicals for mass-produced products.

But the mass production that allowed things to be made both quickly and cheaply had another consequence. Machinery made it all possible, and there were no regulations in place to protect the people who worked with and around that machinery. There were always men and women looking for employment, but replacing machinery was more expensive. Without regulations and penalties to make injuries and deaths expensive, it was easier for companies to replace workers than to make workplaces safer.

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19 comments
shagydeep
shagydeep

Dow chemical burn has been really very bad and the effect of it also worst. The main reason behind these patients are not able to talk and perform by their body language.

Esters Manufacturers


BullCrap
BullCrap

Well this story is full of fiction, no facts at all. So here are some facts! DOW Chemical is one of the most safety minded companies in the world. Fact the people mentioned in this rag (Fellow Dow employees) of Brian’s are deeply hurt and saddened by his death. Fact Brian is solely responsible for his own death. Fact this is a dangerous industry and that is why there are policies and procedures that are developed and reviewed constantly to insure that if followed we all can go home to our families. The unit mentioned is not in an enclosed area like a (Sub) really get your facts straight. He did not get blown across the room into a wall and there was no (explosion). Brian simply decided to open a filter pot (common piece of equipment) in many different plants and processes. He had been warned on many occasions not to take short cuts and to do things right. Brian was not a bad person, but Brain did what Brian wanted to do when he wanted to do it and how he wanted to do it. It’s very sad he is gone and that his family has to suffer, it’s also sad that so many others are now suffering because of lies and misleading crap like what the article above states. And all because Brian choose not to follow the rules choose not to follow the procedure choose not to wear his PPE. Facts don’t lie

Scott64
Scott64

My deepest condolences to the family of Brian Johns.... and I would like to say... how many workers have to be killed or injured before something in the industrial plant industry changes?...  I've known some of these men over the years and all they want is to be paid well for the dangerous work they do.... but expect that when something does go wrong, that the company stands behind them and not just their checkbooks and bottom line...  the way that the companies treat accidents, it seems as if they act like this does not happen frequently... but how often do you hear about these explosions and accidents?.. between Texas and Louisiana?...  And with the Republican party always talking about too many "rules and regulations" keeping industry/petrochemical suppressed forsaking the precious economy.... you will rarely hear someone in that party stand up for the men and women who make the industry go... the workers.... but instead it is all about protecting the money, and the executives instead of those who put themselves in harms way trying to make a living....  I describe this type of activity in a simple way, and can be used in so many instances in business in this country... profit over people, profit over common sense, profit over environment....  It makes me sick when I see these companies continue to act like this is a rarity, when it is most certainly, and clearly the norm... again, condolences for the family and I hope that you rake Dow over the coals for their callousness and lack of care for the people that do the heavy lifting in the business...

tdiddyafg1
tdiddyafg1

As someone who is well aware of what happened  i can honestly say there is a lot of misinformation in this story. It's as if the trial lawyer wrote it. It is very slanted. Something the lawyers are good at doing.  I worked with Brian for almost 7 years. I won't go into detail but the person responsible for his death is himself. I'm sorry for the family but it is the truth

johncoby
johncoby

People wanted a tax cut, so they cut OSHA. Unfortunately those who understand how important workers safety can be are those who wish workers safety was a top priority in Texas. For those it is too late to be concerned. For the vast majority of people workers safety is nothing more than useless overheard and unnecessary regulation that stifles the free market. The Republican party knows this and can easily manipulate people into giving up their rights to safety that was signed into law by a republican, Ronald Reagan.

They have successfully demonized workers safety, and those "greedy trial lawyers" cutting funding and passing laws to protect corporations knowing full well that a few people will get hurt or killed and they will lose a handful of votes and nothing more.


I too grieve about this horrible accident. It could have been prevented but here in Texas money is more important than a man's life. Welcome to Texas folks.

jcjjr1956
jcjjr1956

That you Dianna Wray for the conversation about Brian Johns.  You did a very nice job.  Thanks for the truth.  You see you were talking about my baby brother, the Kool-Aid kid.   I love him so very much.  Thank you for letting the world know the horror he endured for the sake of employment. 

doodles121960
doodles121960

I'm sorry, I meant to also express my sincere condolences to the Johns family, his Mother, Son, and Sisters.  May God's Hands lay carefully onto your heart, to help heal the pain you all are left to contend with everyday that Brian is gone from your presence.  God Bless his soul, and yours.

doodles121960
doodles121960

My husband 24 y.o., my high school sweetheart, was killed on the job, at Aldine High School back in '86.  OSHA came out to investigate.  They issued the owner of his co. 10 citations.  We took them to court because of several issues; they had illegals on the jobsite who obviously couldn't read english, one had turn the power on at the main switch, after the box had been locked down, and sign placed on box. My husband was electricuted, he was an apprentice, who didn't have his Journeyman nearby to help him out of the situation.  He lite up the framing in the drop ceiling, then fell from his ladder, and died on the scene, alone.  This owner...was upstairs the day of our court date, filing bankruptcy....OSHA showed up, long enough to present the judge with a quashed order (I think it was called??), stating they didn't have to come before the judge, as my attorney who worked for the lawfirm Fisher, Gallagher, Perrin & Lewis here in Houston (one of the best at the time), didn't file all the paperwork (missed one page) in order for OSHA to HAVE to testify....so they choose not to.  They (OSHA) were detremental to our defense, the fines issued that day, would have been all we needed, instead the evidence was not sufficent enough for the jury to find the owner guilty of negligence.  I wanted this S.O.B. out of business - this wasn't his first time doing something similair.  Instead, he changed names, and continues to do business in the Heights.  OSHA, what is it good for....nuthin!

roadgoliath
roadgoliath

I understand Corporate Executives selling their souls for $Billions in bonuses, pay, perks & pensions (they do have the best union: the Board of Director Friends).... but what is a corporate spokesperson's soul worth, eh Lynette & Tim ?   How tiny a percentage of executive compensation would it take to have safe workplaces, 1%?   Corporate criminals have committed how many 9/11's since 2001, about 1,000 of them?   Keep crying about unions & terrorists, right wing; hopefully corporate criminal pollution will teach you a deadly lesson!

Robin Varner
Robin Varner

A sad article, but as always the Houston Press gives us the truth. Worth the read

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

First-class reporting on a tragic story, Ms. Wray.

tdiddyafg1
tdiddyafg1

I don't mean to disrespect either. Brian was a nice guy and i hate to see anyone pass but i also know when something is written incorrectly and is very slanted.  Fact is he didn't have the proper personal protective equiptment(PPE) on. If he did he wouldn't have been burnt that badly. Two he didn't get into the saftey shower a mere few feet away when he was told. Which is required by company standards . He chose to try and walk inside and shower which is several hundred feet away. He never made it due to his burns. Had he got in the shower it would have cooled him down and gotten the chemicals off of him before his burns progressed. Three he had actually already changed out the filters. The article is wrong. He went back out to mess with it without the procedure required. My guess is it didn't seal completely. It happens even on new equipment. Also he didn't follow the steps in the procedure corretly. The procedure requires you to blow it with nitrogen after you flush it with water to cool it down and get the water/chemicals out. Had he done any of those things he would still be here.

OperatorTrash
OperatorTrash

 If there were known problems with the integrity of the equipment, the company certainly needed to perform repairs asap. As an operator though, we are trained to always wear all your PPE, every job, every time. It says in the article that he neglected to put on his protective equipment. While this probably wouldn't have prevented him from getting injured, it most likely would have saved his life.  

I mean no disrespect to the family by commenting here but there's a lot just flat wrong information about OSHA and safety culture in plants in this article.

My condolences to the family, I can't begin to comprehend the pain you all must be feeling.

vidar808
vidar808

@tdiddyafg1 Disgusting! Don't back up your statement with any facts, just a poor attempt at ethos. Then strait to attacking the victim. 

nemcclinton
nemcclinton

@doodles121960 Thank you doodles121960 so much, it means a lot to me that someones else understands what my son and his grandmother, aunts  and uncles (jcjjr1956) are going through doing this time.  May God continue to bless you and give comfort.

 
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