Did a Safety Violation Save Lives After North Carolina Blast?

The explosion that destroyed the West Pharmaceutical Services factory in Kinston, N.C. was so powerful it broke windows across town and rocked the airport control tower several miles away.

Witnesses to the Jan. 29 blast reported seeing debris flying as high as 400 feet into the air, and the fire burned so hot for so long, it was two days before federal investigators of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) were permitted to enter the building.

Three workers died in the explosion, and 20 are still in the hospital. But because the facility employed 255 people, some observers are relieved the powerful blast and the fire that followed did not result in more deaths and injuries.

One reason for the relatively low number of casualties could be the fact that North Carolina's job safety agency, the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL), cited the factory last October for failing to develop an emergency plan for chemical accidents.

Juan Santos, an NCDOL spokesperson, said the company had provided written evidence that it had corrected the emergency plan problem. "This might have had an impact on the evacuation of employees," said Santos, "but we don't know this for certain yet because we have not talked to employees about it." NCDOL is conducting a full investigation of the explosion, and has not yet determined whether safety failures caused the explosion.

The plant was initially fined $10,863 for a total of 15 safety violations, seven of them serious, including machine guarding, confined space and lockout/tagout. Santos emphasized that he did not believe these safety problems had anything to do with Wednesday's explosion.

As the remains of the factory continue to smolder, it was announced that investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) would be allowed to enter the site on Friday.

"ATF has to rule out that it was a criminal act before our investigators can enter the building," said Andrea Taylor, a member of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). Taylor is in Kinston along with six CSB investigators in order to determine if it is a chemical incident.

"It remains an unsafe site," said CSB spokesperson Sandy Gilmour. He explained that the agency's investigators are interviewing witnesses and preparing to enter what remains of the building. "The investigators are exploring the chemical process that was used here," said Gilmour, since the chemicals themselves were not considered especially hazardous.

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