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.

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

His skin was on fire. Brian Johns couldn't feel exactly what was happening to him through the jolt of endorphins and adrenaline pumping through his body, but the acid was still there, sizzling through layer after layer of his skin, from the rich brown color that coated his huge muscles to the pink skin underneath it to the red sinew of muscle beneath.

The ambulance wailed through the dark of night, taking him from the Rohm and Haas plant in Deer Park to the emergency room of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, almost flying over more than 40 miles of road. Now they were rushing him down the hospital corridor, already looking over the damage, noting the second- and third-degree burns that covered more than half of Johns's large body after an explosion in an ammonia recycling unit at the plant.

They cut his work jumpsuit off him and began rinsing his body with hundreds of gallons of lukewarm water to wash away the chemicals. Dr. David Herndon, chief of staff of the Blocker Burn Unit since 1981, laid a slip of pH paper on Johns's skin. It turned red, indicating the presence of acid. Herndon told the nurses to keep rinsing.

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.

Johns had been conscious and aware for most of the time since the explosion. He'd already called his mother, Frances Sowell. The phone jangled just before midnight, and she heard her youngest son's deep voice on the line.

"Mother, there's been an accident. Meet me at the hospital," he said. His voice sounded so calm, Sowell wondered for a moment if it was her son who had been injured or if someone else was hurt.

Then he called back and told her they were headed to UTMB, a hospital with a world-­renowned burn center, the Blocker Burn Unit.

Sowell called her four other children, woke up her husband and drove to Galveston. Johns was already in surgery by the time they got there. Herndon scraped off the layers of skin damaged by acid, digging down past the burns that covered most of Johns's 6'9", 325-pound body, a massive structure of bulging muscles he'd crafted through years of bodybuilding, to find skin that was still alive.

As Sowell sat in the waiting room, her son's bosses settled into chairs in a corner of the room. His Rohm and Haas team leader, Lynnette Borrousch, walked over and introduced herself, asking if there was anything Sowell needed, but Tim Fox, a chemical engineer and one of Johns's supervisors, just sat in his chair, arms folded and hands clasped over his belly, eyes closed, not saying a word.

Sitting next to her mother, Pam Roberson studied Fox's face. He didn't even look at her or her mother. He just sat there until Herndon stepped into the waiting room, asking if the chemical engineer had arrived yet.

In a heartbeat, Fox sprang to life, out of his seat and across the room to the doctor. He and Herndon walked into the hallway, but from her chair near the door, Roberson could hear their conversation. Anxious for any information, she closed her eyes and focused, listening intently.

Fox told the doctor that there was nothing Johns was working with any more dangerous than extremely hot water.

"Non-caustic. It was non-caustic, doctor," Fox said.

"I just spent five hours scraping something off of this man's skin. It wasn't non-caustic," Herndon told Fox.

When Johns was due to come out of surgery, his family lined the hallway, craning to get a glimpse of him. Roberson saw a group coming down the hall wheeling a huge air bed with something on it — it was Johns's team; she recognized them — but she couldn't see her brother.

The bed drew up alongside her, and there was a mass of mottled, raw tissue and bandages, nothing that was her brother. Then she saw the eyes.

"Oh my God! That's Brian!"

Standing on the other side of the hall, Sowell craned her neck, but her other daughter, Ronetta, darted in front of her, blocking most of her view.

Borrousch peered over Roberson's shoulder, looked down into the bed and then slid past Sowell into an empty hospital room, cell phone to her ear.

"It's much worse than we thought," she said.

Listening, Sowell realized the "it" Borrousch was referring to was what had happened to her son.

Johns's family contends that he was injured in the explosion due to the gross negligence of his employers at Rohm and Haas, which is owned by Dow Chemical, the largest chemical company in the United States. Dow Chemical representatives and their lawyers declined to comment for this story.
_____________________

July 17, 2012, was another ordinary day for Johns. He pulled up in his pickup truck to the chemical plant he'd worked at as an operator for more than a decade and started his shift on the dot at 5 p.m.

He moved through the massive construction of interconnected pipes and lines, doing his rounds. He swung open the door on the ammonia recycling unit and walked inside to change the cartridge filter.

The units are sealed with round metal doors like the ones on a submarine. Johns was changing the filter on one of these units — the filter connected to a line through which a mixture of hot water and chemicals including anhydrous cyanide ran continuously — when there was a loud bang as the casing sealing the unit exploded, letting loose a spray of chemicals and scalding-hot water. The force of the blast slammed into Johns, sending him flying.

1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
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.

 
Houston Concert Tickets
Loading...