Concept Sciences, OSHA Reach Settlement Agreement

Company agrees to pay a reduced fine, winding up OSHA's investigation into explosion that killed five.

It pays to negotiate.

Two years ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposed fines of $641,200 against Concept Sciences Inc. following an explosion that killed five people and leveled buildings at the company''s facility near Allentown, Pa. (See article "Fatal Explosion Results in $641,200 Fine.")

Negotiations ensued, and OSHA and the company recently agreed to a $250,000 penalty. OSHA also agreed to remove the word "willful" from the citations it issued to the company.

In August 1999, OSHA cited Concept Sciences Inc. (CSI), a specialty chemical manufacturer, for 20 alleged violations, including 11 willful violations for failure to protect employees from the explosive potential of hazardous chemicals. The explosion occurred Feb. 19 at CSI''s manufacturing facility in Hanover Township, Pa. Four of the workers killed were employed by CSI, and one worker from an adjacent business was also killed in the explosion.

On the night of the blast, Concept Sciences employees were involved in the company''s first production run of hydroxylamine, a chemical additive used to produce other chemicals for the microprocessor industry.

OSHA''s inspection revealed that the explosion occurred at a 2,500-gallon fiberglass reinforced charge tank containing approximately 750 pounds of the hazardous chemical. The tank was being used in the distillation process. Pure hydroxylamine has explosive energy roughly equivalent to that of TNT. The building was completely destroyed by the explosion and has since been demolished.

Of the 20 violations cited, 11 were alleged willful violations of OSHA''s process safety management (PSM) standard, as well as provisions of the hazard communication standard.

The PSM standard establishes requirements to prevent, or minimize, the potential for fire or explosion caused by dangerous chemicals, while hazard communication addresses the potential hazards of chemicals and establishes procedures to communicate those hazards to employees.

Back in 1999, then Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman commented, "This is precisely why OSHA established standards to prevent catastrophic incidents involving hazardous chemicals. CSI management was clearly aware of the requirements of those standards, but failed to take adequate safety measures prior to producing a chemical known throughout the industry as potentially explosive."

The agency has apparently changed its tune slightly. Despite the change in wording and the significant reduction in the penalty, George J. Tomchick Jr., area director for OSHA''s Allentown office, signed the original 48-page citation against CSI, is still claiming victory.

"Some people might see this as a substantial reduction, but it''s still certainly a substantial penalty," says Tomchick. "When you consider this was a small employer, not a multinational corporation, a $250,000 penalty for a small business is a very substantial penalty."

In September, a 12-count criminal indictment against Irl E. "Chip" Ward was dismissed by a federal judge (See related articles "Plant President Charged in Explosion" and "Feds Won''t Appeal Dismissal of Criminal Charges Against PA Employer".) In February, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board ended its two-year investigation of the blast without determining the exact cause.

"We hope that the partnership that has developed between OSHA and chemical manufacturers in the Lehigh Valley will serve to prevent any such tragedies in the future," said Philadelphia Regional Administrator Richard D. Soltan.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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