The failure of Morton Specialty Chemicals Group to follow recommended safety practices for reactive chemicals probably caused the April 1998 explosion at the company''s Paterson, N.J., plant, according to investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB).
The blast and resulting fire injured nine workers and released a toxic chemical cloud that spread through the surrounding residential neighborhood.
The CSB''s staff report containing findings of fact and recommendations to prevent similar incidents was presented at a July 18 public meeting in Paterson.
While the investigators'' findings of fact were not disputed by anyone at the meeting, union representatives and a number of Paterson residents were disappointed the staff''s recommendations did not include an immediate demand for tougher regulations.
"The explosion at Morton revealed once again a gaping loophole in OSHA''s process safety management (PSM) standard," said Eric Frumin, director of Occupational Safety and Health for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).
At present, reactive chemicals are excluded from the PSM standard, even though many accidents at chemical factories occur when these otherwise harmless chemicals are mixed together improperly, causing a "runaway" reaction.
OSHA fined Morton only $7,000 for relatively minor safety violations it found after investigating the incident. A settlement enabled the company to reduce the fine to $5,000.
Frumin buttressed his argument on the pressing need for reactive chemical regulation by referring to the 1995 explosion of a Napp Technologies plant in Lodi, N.J., that killed five workers.
The CSB staff report instead recommends that OSHA and EPA participate in a hazard investigation of reactive chemical process safety to be conducted by the CSB.
Lead investigator David Heller said he believed this hazard investigation could provide the basis for the future regulation of reactives.
The CSB must vote to accept, reject or modify the report, something board member Andrea Taylor said would take place before September.
The explosion occurred during the production of Yellow 96 Dye, which was used to tint petroleum fuel products.
The chemicals used to make the dye rose too quickly in temperature and pressure, causing a "runaway" chemical reaction that resulted in the explosion, fire, injuries and release of material into the community.
Heller outlined three "root causes" of the incident.
First, Morton''s hazard assessments failed to address a number of important dangers in the production process. This led to design defects such as an inadequate cooling and venting capacity. Plant management also ignored repeated warnings by operators that the cooling mechanism was often ineffective during what investigators called high "temperature excursions."
"These high temperatures were considered by management a quality concern -- not a safety concern," said Heller.
Second, plant operators were not warned of the potential for a dangerous runaway chemical reaction, despite the fact that Morton''s own researchers had recommended further tests and more safety devices to deal with this hazard.
Third, Morton doubled the size and increased the speed of production without addressing the additional hazards that resulted from these changes.
Despite the report''s highly critical assessment of plant management, the current owners of the facility praised the CSB''s draft report as a "professional and thorough investigation of the events that led up to the explosion."
Rohm and Haas Co., a Philadelphia-based chemical company, purchased Morton and the Paterson plant last year.
Phil Lewis, director of the company''s environmental, health, and safety department, said he agreed in principle with the recommendations outlined by the staff. "In fact," he added, "most of the recommendations have already been implemented at the facility."
Yellow 96 Dye is no longer produced at the Morton plant.
There is one change in the plant that has not been made. The plant manager in charge of the facility during the explosion still has his job.
"We''re not focusing on management, said Brian McPeak, manager of Rohm and Haas''s public affairs. "Instead we''re putting our energy into bringing the facility into line with our process safety standards."
by James Nash