Houston is one of the world's largest manufacturing hubs for chemicals and petrochemicals, and this has been a part of the city's economy for decades. But the plants and refineries in and around Houston come at a price: It's never a question of whether there will be an accident or an explosion; it's only a question of when and where. The latest fatal accident happened at a PeroxyChem plant in an explosion that reverberated through the area, killing one person and injuring three.
The explosion occurred on Saturday when a tank holding an oil-based cleaning solution exploded. One contract worker, Ricky Giddens, 62, died at the scene while three others, two contractors and one employee, were injured when something went wrong involving the transfer of chemicals at the plant, according to KTRK.
Relatively speaking, PeroxyChem isn't one of the big players like Dow or DuPont. The company employs 600 people and produces hydrogen peroxide, ammonium persulfate, peracetic acid and other products for cleaning and sanitation, food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, oil and gas production, pulp and paper, electronics, and the environment. The Pasadena plant had a fairly clean record and the company has placed an emphasis on safety, according to the company's own 2014 report:
"Safety is our first and foremost priority. Extreme diligence and focus must be placed on safety at all times, in all areas, and all functions. Last year we again incurred recordable incidents, and although we are fortunate none were serious or life threatening, when compared to 2013 numbers, we did not improve our incident rate year-over-year," the company's 2014 report stated. "We are cognizant that our injuries spanned across functional areas, reminding us that our focus on safety must extend past the traditional manufacturing setting, and incidents can happen anywhere, anytime. In our effort to be a top-tier safety company we are committed to operating safely and strive to obtain and maintain an incident-free workplace. No amount of time or money justifies the risk and impact of unsafe practices on our people, the community or the environment.
What's more troubling about all this is that it keeps happening. The injuries and the deaths are a fact of life that those who work in these industries simply accept. Some are on the job for decades without any incident, while others — through mistakes, through lack of training, or because of faulty equipment or some other whim of fate or bad luck — sustain injuries that are often fatal.
As we've reported before, many of the people who work in the plants and refineries know the risks. Brian Johns, the man we wrote about in our 2013 feature story "Chemically Burned", used to tell his son about the dangerous chemicals he worked with at the Deer Park plant owned by Dow Chemical.
Kathryn Rodriguez's father, Ray Gonzalez, died from burns sustained in an accident at the then-British Petroleum Texas City refinery in September 2004. Over the years, as he worked in the refinery industry, Gonzalez would tell his wife how easily a minor situation could turn deadly, but he hid that fact from his daughters, Rodriguez told us in 2015. "He didn't want us to worry. If we had known, we would have worried all the time," she said.
But even though the risks are known, these types of industry are left with very little regulatory oversight, until something catastrophic happens. The regulatory agencies that should be stepping in are caught in situations that make actual regulation difficult if not impossible, as we've noted before. Occupational Health and Safety Administration officials were on the scene investigating the PeroxyChem accident as of Tuesday morning, but it was the first time OSHA had been on the premises in a decade, according to the Houston Chronicle.
And that's actually completely normal in the world of plant regulation. 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 explosion at PeroxyChem happen.
(Besides, the chemicals and materials dealt with on a day-to-day basis in these industries are so volatile and unpredictable, and the processes are so complicated, it's possible that even the most rigorous OSHA inspections would miss something.)
OSHA officials are overextended and underfunded, so even though the creation of this agency was hailed as a giant stride forward in labor safety back in the 1970s, it really can't do much more than show up after there's been a serious injury or a death and issue fairly meaningless fines.
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Meanwhile, the Chemical Safety Board is also looking into the details of the explosion and gathering information. However, the CSB is charged with investigating incidents like this one but the CSB has no regulatory authority. Plus, the CSB is also a relatively tiny organization that has been tasked with overseeing incidents in thousands of companies and plants across the country.
The CSB shows up on site and investigates the big disasters like the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 workers, and the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, in 2013 and the deaths of four workers killed by the leak of toxic substances in DuPont's La Porte facility in November 2014. The DuPont La Porte accident was such a mess that the CSB took an unusual step and made its report public before the report was finished, as we noted at the time, because DuPont hadn't fixed the problems in the facilities but the company was about to start up production again. And in instances like that, the CSB can make its power felt.
But the reality is CSB is too small an organization to show up and investigate the deaths of every worker, like the worker who was killed at Dow Chemical in July or the four who died at SunEdison in Pasadena in October or the others who have died since.
We don't yet know much about the accident that killed Giddens and injured three others. Unfortunately, there's one thing we can be sure of: It wasn't the first and it won't be the last.