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.

When OSHA was established, it seemed as if labor safety was taking a giant stride forward, but in the years after its creation, it became apparent that OSHA was a watchdog agency that could watch over only a small number of the employees it was supposed to be protecting.

OSHA simply isn't big enough. Some states have established their own agencies to regulate worker safety, but Texas is among those that have chosen to rely on federal regulators instead. Today there are about 2,200 inspectors at OSHA who oversee more than 130 million workers at more than 8 million workplaces, making it impossible for agency investigators to get to every company before incidents like the explosions in Deer Park or West take place.

Besides, OSHA is a regulatory agency with agents who have the power only to file reports and impose fines for violations. A fine from OSHA comes minus any criminal charges that would penalize employers with jail time along with the fines — there's no risk that a company official will serve time for negligence at a plant — and the fining system goes up to only $7,000 for the most serious violations.

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.

Also, OSHA investigators don't necessarily have the expertise to know what they should be looking for when they're inspecting a plant like the one at Deer Park, Daniel Horowitz, head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said.

The Chemical Safety Board was created in response to the Bhopal disaster in 1984, when a gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in India killed more than 3,000 people and exposed more than 500,000 to toxic gases and other chemicals. Union Carbide was sued by the Indian government, settling out of court for $470 million, and the company was purchased by Dow in 2001. The CSB was authorized by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and became operational in 1998. The agency is charged with investigating incidents such as Bhopal but has no regulatory power.

"The chemical industry is huge, strategically vital, but it's very complex and it requires a lot of technical sophistication to go into these places and to be able to understand what they're looking at," Horowitz said.

The CSB specializes in just these kinds of inspections, but the agency is so small that its inspectors rarely investigate incidents like the one that resulted in Johns's death because the board doesn't have the manpower or the funding. Finding people qualified to be inspectors who will actually choose to work for the government rather than get more lucrative jobs at one of the companies they'd be inspecting is difficult, Horowitz said.

"One thing I do know for certain is that if an incident at an individual site happens, there are often thousands of similar sites that have no way of knowing about what has happened or why something went wrong. And learning is key," Horowitz said.

OSHA started investigating the incident at Deer Park the week after Johns died, and the accident was officially reported. OSHA only investigates if three or more people are injured or if someone dies. If these requirements aren't met, OSHA lets companies self-report their accidents. If the agency investigates and finds willful serious violations, the law allows it to fine only up to $7,000 for a death and $70,000 for a death resulting from willful negligence.

In a 2002 Frontline interview on worker safety, Charles Jeffress, former assistant labor secretary for occupational health and safety in the 1990s, said federal law governing workplace safety is weak. The law was designed to prevent accidents, so the penalties are the same for violations regardless of whether someone has been injured as a result of a violation. Even if OSHA investigators find that a company has willful violations resulting in a death, the criminal violation is only a misdemeanor, Jeffress said.

"The law has inadequate teeth. And we are not doing enough to protect them," Jeffress said in the interview. "When OSHA was passed, it was not envisioned that OSHA would be an agency that punishes a company where people get killed. It was an agency that was going out to prevent accidents."

In January, six months after Johns died, OSHA investigators found seven violations at the Dow Rohm and Haas plant. The agency fined Dow $7,000 for not having Johns wear protective gear in the unit; $7,000 for not having process safety info about the unit; $4,000 for not inspecting and testing the equipment as often as the manufacturer advised; $7,000 for not correcting "deficiencies" in the equipment — the window into the unit should have been kept clear so that Johns could see into it before opening the cartridge — and $1,000 for not having its employees participate in the company's in-house investigation. OSHA also issued Dow a citation without any fine for not reviewing the operating procedure often enough. In total, the agency fined Dow $33,000 for the working conditions surrounding the explosion that killed a man.

Then OSHA dropped one of the fines, bringing the total ­financial penalty for Johns's death to $23,000, which Dow paid in April 2013.

Stewart started dealing with Dow after his wife, Sharron, got involved in the environmental movement against the company's air and water standards in the late 1960s when the couple moved to Lake Jackson and the air quality got so bad it was making Sharron and her daughter sick. Sharron got to know the environmentalists, and from there she met the labor people. The unions wouldn't be a power in Dow for much longer, but they knew where all the bodies were buried and could explain how things worked once you got inside the company gates. She fought Dow her way while Stewart, a trial lawyer who's now retired, fought it in his, going up against the company about ten times over the course of his career.

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20 comments
schultzybeckett
schultzybeckett

In 1991 Mike Cheiky made prototype zinc-air batteries that were used to power a converted Honda CRX to race in a Solar & Electric 500 race at Phoenix International Raceway. The car won the race, it's competition being more conventional batteries available at the time. The race was chronicled in Popular Science, June 1991. Could any of Cheiky's work benefit this ASU effort? He is a world renowned technology entrepreneur.

Schultzy @ http://www.unitedfilter.com/

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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