Cover Story: Chemically Burned

Brian Johns went to work on July 17, 2012 at the Rohm and Haas in Deer Park, just as he'd done for years. Johns was changing a filter in an ammonium nitrate unit when there was an explosion that covered his skin with acid so that more than 65 percent of his body was burned.

The big disasters are the ones that get attention. The West explosion, the British Petroleum oil disaster or the legendary blast that tore through Texas City in 1947: People note these incidents and remember what happened years later. But an explosion in one unit at one of the many chemical plants along the Texas coast is the kind of thing that gets overlooked by both the public and the systems that are supposed to be regulating these industries, despite the fact that it ultimately killed a man.

Johns died after a month of suffering, enduring weekly operations and pain as his body gave out. If Johns had not died, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration would never have been informed of the incident, outside of a note in the company OSHA books.

OSHA investigators inspected the unit where Johns was working when the explosion happened and found seven violations, classifying six of the violations as "serious." Last April, Dow Chemical, the second largest chemical company in the world, paid a fine, $23,000, for the violations. The fine was the only consequence.

Incidents like this one happen more often than people realize, Steve Zeltzer, a labor activist based in California, said. They are also preventable.

"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."

Get the whole story in this week's cover story, "Chemically Burned."

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray