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.

Still, court battles throughout the 20th century slowly established workers' rights, and in 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which required employers to provide safe working environments for their employees. The act also established OSHA, which was responsible for ensuring that workers operated in safe and healthy environments, and gave the new agency the power to investigate and fine companies if they violated the rules and endangered their employees.

That was back when labor unions still had enough clout to help get legislation passed, but the unions, never as powerful in Texas as elsewhere, were losing what little power they had. Dow employees once went on strike in the early 1970s, but the company greatly diminished the power of the unions by not hiring union contractors, Stewart said. After that, if an employee took a stand on issues like safety or repairs, there was no one to back him up, Stewart said.

Dow Deer Park Communications Director Tracie Cope­land said she'd never heard of the company eliminating the union presence in such a way.

Brian Johns suffered second- and third-degree burns over 65 percent of his body and was treated at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
Courtesy of Pam Roberson
Brian Johns suffered second- and third-degree burns over 65 percent of his body and was treated at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
Frances Sowell has filed  a lawsuit against Rohm and Haas and Dow Chemical, saying their negligence led to the death of her son, Brian Johns.
Daniel Kramer
Frances Sowell has filed a lawsuit against Rohm and Haas and Dow Chemical, saying their negligence led to the death of her son, Brian Johns.

"That's not consistent with the Dow culture at all," she said.

Frances Sowell knew the plants and refineries could be dangerous. Growing up in Galveston, she was in school the day of the famous 1947 Texas City explosion, when a shipload of ammonium nitrate ignited, killing close to 600 people in what is still the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history. She heard the blast, and on the way home she peered out the window of the school bus and saw the truckloads of bodies being carted away. The explosion was the stuff of nightmares, but the plants and refineries were simply a part of life, a part of the Texas City landscape.

The Texas City explosion helped create the Blocker Burn Unit at UTMB in Galveston. Dr. Truman Blocker was a plastic surgeon at the hospital when the explosion occurred, but he'd worked with burn patients during his stint in the U.S. Army during World War II. He applied what he'd learned there to the more than 3,000 injured at Texas City. After that, he set up one of the best burn units in the country. Sowell worked with him there as a burn nurse, learning the ins and outs of caring for burn patients, never imagining that one of the children she went home to each night would one day be a patient in that ward.

Brian was a small baby, but he loomed at 6'9" by the time he got to La Marque High School, where his skill on the basketball court got some recruiters interested in him. He didn't have the grades to go with the skills that might have taken him to one of the major universities, but he received an athletic scholarship and studied criminal justice at Lamar University in Beaumont. He was going into law enforcement to become a cop — which fit with his love of superheroes — but had trouble keeping up his grades, and then his college girlfriend got pregnant, and it was time to come home.

After knocking around from job to job, he got certified as an operator. For a guy without a degree, a job at a place like Rohm and Haas was a good opportunity, with good pay, good benefits and some security as long as he didn't step out of line. Johns had worked at other plants in the area before landing at Rohm and Haas a few years before Dow bought it. By then, Dow was the second-largest chemical company in the world, with a much-touted and burnished safety record, according to OSHA.

"Jobs at the chemical factories like Dow were good jobs for guys without their degrees. It was a good opportunity to make a good living," Stewart said.
_____________________

Johns never talked much about his job, but he once told his son, Corey, about the kinds of chemicals he worked with. The plant could be a dangerous place, he told his son.

What makes these places more dangerous is the culture that surrounds the people working in them, said Steve Zeltzer, a labor activist based in California. The plants and refineries along the Texas coast have a code, an understanding of silence according to which employees don't report safety concerns or equipment that needs to be ­replaced.

"One of the things the American people don't understand is that we don't have to put up with it," Zeltzer said. "We're the wealthiest country in the world, and our workers are going to work in dangerous places and they're dying, but it doesn't have to happen."

Costing the company money was the kind of thing that wouldn't directly get you fired, but it was frowned upon. If you were injured, you went to the company doctors, not the hospital, since a trip to the hospital meant the company would have to record the injury for OSHA. If you had to go to the hospital, you should drive yourself — another way around reporting the injury to OSHA, Zeltzer said.

"Whether union or nonunion, they're afraid to speak out about serious health and safety problems in this country," Zeltzer said. "They won't get directly fired for speaking out, but they'll get people who've reported things by looking at the money and cutting their salary out."

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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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