The deaths of four workers at a DuPont facility in La Porte, Tex., has prompted a deeper look from OSHA at DuPont safety practices.
In November 2014, a worker was overcome at a DuPont chemical manufacturing facility when a supply line unexpectedly released more than 20,000 lbs. of methyl mercaptan when she opened a drain on a methyl mercaptan vent line. Two co-workers who came to her aid also were overcome. None of the three wore protective respirators. A fourth co-worker – the brother of one of the fallen men – attempted a rescue, but was unsuccessful. All four people died in the building.
Methyl mercaptan is a colorless gas with a strong odor. It is used in pesticides, jet fuels and plastics. At dangerous levels of exposure, the gas depresses the central nervous system and affects the respiratory center, producing death by respiratory paralysis.
After the initial investigation into the four deaths, OSHA found hazards that prompted the inspection at the facility to be expanded under the National Emphasis Program for chemical facilities.
OSHA on July 9 issued citations to DuPont for three willful, one repeat and four serious violations at its chemical manufacturing plant in La Porte. The agency has proposed penalties of $273,000 for these new violations.
DuPont responded to the latest round of citations, saying in a statement that the OSHA citations are a result of the review of the herbicide and hydrofluoric acid (HF) units at the La Porte site. At the same time OSHA began its work, DuPont assessed the process safety management (PSM) systems in the units.
“Through the course of our work, we have shut down the herbicide unit in order to take corrective measures, and the unit will not restart until the work is complete,” the company said in the statement, adding, “The review of the HF unit confirmed that the unit is safe to operate.”
DuPont in the statement said it is “disappointed with OSHA’s classification, and we will be working with the agency to understand its decision,” adding, “Safety is a core value and a constant priority at DuPont. We first implemented safety rules in 1811 and have been engaged in a continuous process to improve ever since.”
In his remarks about the enforcement action against the company, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels took aim at the company’s reputation for safety. “DuPont promotes itself as having a ‘world-class safety’ culture and even markets its safety expertise to other employers, but these four preventable workplace deaths and the very serious hazards we uncovered at this facility are evidence of a failed safety program,” said Michaels. “Nothing can bring these workers back to their loved ones. I hope that our continued scrutiny into this facility and into working conditions at other DuPont plants will mean no family ever suffers this loss again. We here at OSHA want DuPont and the chemical industry as a whole to hear this message loud and clear.”
Kate Bailey, the spokesperson for DuPont Sustainable Solutions, responded to Michael’s comments about the company’s safety consulting business, saying that DuPont Sustainable Solutions “has worked with more than 1,000 clients in 100 countries around the world to train their employees in best in class safety practices. Many of our clients have achieved significant reductions in their safety incident and injury rates as a result of our safety consulting services, and this is backed up by solid supporting data.”
OSHA also placed the company in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program. The program concentrates resources on inspecting employers who have demonstrated indifference towards creating a safe and healthy workplace by committing willful or repeated violations, and/or failing to abate known hazards. It also mandates follow-up inspections to ensure compliance with the law.
Headquartered in Delaware, E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co., (commonly known as DuPont) was cited in May for eight serious and one repeat violation regarding the fatalities with a penalty of $99,000. The company has contested the citations. In addition, the company was cited at their Darrow, La. facility in November 2014 and Deepwater, N.J. facility in December 2014 for similar process safety management violations.
DuPont employs about 63,000 people with operations in about 90 countries globally. The La Porte location employs 313 workers who manufacture pesticides and other chemicals for the company.
The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and proposed penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director in Houston South or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
“ We have not had a chance to review OSHA’s findings in detail; we will work with the agency to better understand the citations and any further required abatement,” responded DuPont. “Operating the La Porte site safely is our number one priority. We have and will continue to take the necessary steps to ensure all units are safe to operate.”