In the months following the toxic chemical leak at DuPont's La Porte plant last November that killed four workers, investigators began to piece together exactly what happened. Their damning assessments, as provided to Congress and in periodic updates to the media, were all the more stunning considering DuPont's self-described role as a “world class safety leader” – a reputation industry experts and federal regulators apparently gobbled up without much thought.
Last November's leak of an estimated 23,000 pounds of methyl mercaptan – a chemical that, when inhaled at high enough levels, attacks the central nervous system and causes death by respiratory paralysis – killed DuPont workers Crystle Wise, Wade Baker and brothers Robert and Gibby Tisnado. Industry watchers and government officials called the incident a "wake-up call."
Then, on Thursday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration delivered its assessment following a 6-month investigation.
Sure, OSHA unequivocally blamed the deaths on DuPont, citing ongoing problems that the company had failed to fix at its La Porte plant – namely that ventilation fans inside the unit where four workers died had been inoperable for months and that the company had failed to provide basic safety training to its workers. “Four people lost their lives and their families lost loved ones because DuPont did not have proper safety procedures in place,” assistant secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Helath David Michaels said in a prepared statement. “Had the company assessed the dangers involved or trained their employees on what to do if the ventilation system stopped working, they might have had a chance.”
Still, in citing DuPont for 11 violations (including nine serious violations and one repeat violation), OSHA proposed fines of $99,000, a paltry sum considering the multi billion dollar company's largesse (the company made $35.7 billion in revenue in 2013).
Late last year, federal investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board indicated that, due to a faulty valve, methyl mercaptan entered an interconnected ventilation system inside the pesticide unit where the four workers were stationed. Investigators say an apparent design flaw required workers to manually drain the vents every time liquid would build up, exposing them to potentially hazardous chemicals.
And in the months before the incident that killed the four workers, fans situated atop the unit that were supposed to purge the air of hazardous fumes stopped working. Remarkably, workers weren't given any further safety precautions, investigators say. When methyl mercaptan leaked out onto the unit, Baker, Wise and Robert Tisnado were trapped inside without working ventilation fans or air respirators to protect them. Gibby Tisnado attempted to rescue the workers – and, according to an account in the Chron, helped another worker escape and survive – but ultimately succumbed to the lethal gas.
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As for a wake-up call, it's yet to be seen what kind of impact the incident (or the toothless regulatory response to it) will have on the industry. In written testimony to Congress late last year, CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso warned that the La Port incident might just be the canary in the coal mine, a warning that we need systemic regulatory reforms when it comes to the chemical industry:
"In summary, this was a complex process-related accident with tragic results. It gives rise to a number of design and organizational safety concerns. Its occurrence - taken along with other major accidents afflicting large and small corporations - underscores the need for some systemic reforms. It would be a serious and tragic mistake to consider each of these accidents as just another isolated event, reflecting only the limited practices of a small group of people operating outside regulatory scrutiny. If it can happen at DuPont, I would submit it can happen anywhere."
Here's the list of citations OSHA unveiled yesterday: