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."
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.