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October 15, 2015
What caused the death of 4 at a Texas chemical plant?

An investigation into the deaths of four employees at a DuPont insecticide plant in La Porte, Texas, has uncovered a number of causes, including some that may surprise you. Learn more here about what went wrong.

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The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) says the November 15, 2014, toxic chemical leak was the result of flawed safety procedures, design problems, and inadequate planning. Thousands of pounds of the deadly chemical methyl mercaptan escaped in the middle of the night through two valves in a poorly ventilated manufacturing building. According to the CSB, operations personnel in one area of the plant tried to clear blocked piping, while in a different area, two workers opened valves in response to what they believed was a routine, unrelated pressure problem.

The two workers were killed when methyl mercaptan drained from the open valves, filling the room with toxic vapor. Sadly, one of those workers made a distress call, and two additional workers died responding to the call.

Commented CSB Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland, “DuPont has long been regarded as a safety leader in the chemical industry, but this investigation has uncovered weaknesses or failures in DuPont’s safety planning and procedures.”

CSB says DuPont had long-standing issues regarding vent piping to an incinerator. As a result, daily instructions had been provided to drain liquid from the pipes. But apparently, the instructions did not specify additional breathing protection for the task. On the night of the fatal incident, workers set about draining piping, not realizing an original blockage had been cleared. That meant that the liquid methyl mercaptan was flowing through the now unblocked pipes.

The La Porte plant was once a leader in the safety approach known as inherently safer design, according to CSB. A number of changes were made at the site after the devastating 1984 accident in Bhopal, India. Thousands of people were killed at a Union Carbide plant during release of the chemical methyl isocyanate, also used at La Porte.

DuPont invested $20 million in 2011 to increase production and reduce environmental emissions at the La Porte site by installing an incinerator. But, notes CSB, that installation created problems, including liquid accumulation and frequent high-pressure events in the piping. There were no written procedures to guide operations or track progress in cleaning the affected feed line. Eventually, 24,000 pounds of the toxic chemical were released.

DuPont agrees to make changes recommended by CSB
Among the main recommendations made by the CSB and agreed to by DuPont are to:

    • Perform an inherently safer design review.
    • Ensure that the manufacturing building is safe for workers.
    • Provide a relief system design that is safe for workers and the public.
    • Conduct more robust process hazard analyses.
    • Assure active workforce participation in the safety process.
    • Promise public accountability and transparency.
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