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.

"Dow doesn't really respond to lawsuits. That's not the way to get their attention," he said.

Once, Stewart remembers, a Dow employee in Freeport fell from the second story of a ship and was knocked unconscious. Within hours, he said, Dow officials in suits showed up at his wife's door. They would take care of everything, they told her. Her husband, who was lying unconscious in a hospital, would continue to receive his salary, and he would even get a raise. If he died, she would receive money and benefits for the rest of her life. But if she started talking to lawyers, if she began meeting with journalists about the accident, it would be a different story.

"Then, they told her, they wouldn't be able to help her. It would be out of their hands. So she signs this agreement and then she can't ever publicly talk about what happened to her husband," Stewart said. "That's how they do things."

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.

Copeland denied the story and said Dow officials would never handle an injured worker that way.

"I've never heard of anything like that happening, and I've never seen anything like that happen. Actually, I can't even imagine that happening here," she said.

An initial loss in court didn't seem to alarm Dow either, Stewart said. If the company's lawyers lost the first round, they almost always won on appeal.

"At the appeals court, it seemed like they would just look at the name on the top of the case and overturn it," he said.

He learned early on that a lawsuit wasn't the way to get Dow's notice but publicity tended to make company officials pay attention. The company prides itself on its image, on an impeccable safety record and a public reputation for being a "good place to work," so much so that you rarely see lawsuits against Dow. Instead, the company dealt with injuries more directly, Stewart said, and in a manner designed to keep the incidents quiet. Most families prefer to take the money and be done with it, he said.
_____________________

On April 1, 2013, Frances Sowell and her grandson Corey filed a lawsuit against Dow; Rohm and Haas; and Johns's direct supervisors, Fox and Julio Rodriguez, for wrongful death, negligence and gross negligence. Copeland confirmed the lawsuit but declined to comment further on the matter. Calls to Fox and Rodriguez were not returned.

Dow lawyers filed a response to the suit on May 6, generally denying all of the family's allegations and stipulating that if Dow, Rohm and Haas, or Fox and Rodriguez are found liable, the defense has the right to allocate responsibility and to designate third parties also responsible for the damage. The lawyers also noted that damages must be capped.

When Sowell saw Johns's burns, the former burn nurse knew what she was looking at, knew what the odds were against his survival — a 45-year-old man burned over 65 percent of his body would have been a completely lost cause when she first started nursing, but even with advances in technology and treatment, his odds were less than 50-50. If the sheer strain being put on his body didn't kill him, his body was so weak that he would be vulnerable to almost every infection imaginable. Within days, his lines were getting infected and the nurses kept stacks of silver nitrate and heavily diluted bleach in his hospital room, dousing him with it every time they changed a bandage.

She knew what she was seeing, but she couldn't believe it. She was by his bed almost every minute, as if she could beat back death, ready to grapple with it there in the cold hospital room if it crept in and tried to take her youngest son.

Johns's mother sat in his hospital room praying the same prayer she'd had rattling steadily in the back of her mind, in a constant state of prayer since the night he was hurt.

"Please, God, let him live. A miracle, God. Please give me a miracle. Please, dear Lord, give me a miracle," she asked.

There was a smell in the room, the sickly sweet smell of rot. The bleach the nurses used to douse his wounds couldn't cover the unmistakable odor of infection anymore, a scent Herndon knows so well that it has become the calling card of death because the patient is rotting from the infection, the sepsis, a strain the body can't sustain.

Pam Roberson looked over her brother's body every time she went by the hospital, and she watched as he shrank, his muscles eaten away, while his toes shriveled like raisins.

He was lucid in the days just after the explosion, but as infection spread through his body, the whites of his eyes became murky yellow, Roberson noticed, and he didn't seem to know where he was or what had happened to him. Once he turned to her and demanded a pair of sandals. He was going to leave this place soon, and he needed some sandals, he told her. She ran out and finally found a pair of size-16 Nike flip-flops. Looking down at his shrinking feet, she wondered if they'd even fit him now.

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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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