There are over 650,000 chemicals in use within the United States. These chemicals are used to make everything from plastics and furniture, to bedding and food. These chemicals and the production processes they are used in are carefully regulated by OSHA and other agencies including the ATF and EPA to ensure that workers are not harmed while using them.
When these regulations and the safety protocols they prescribe are not adhered to, the results can be explosive. In 2014, 84 workers were killed in workplace explosions. This was an increase of 25% over the previous year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the increase was caused by pressure vessel, piping, or tire failures. These explosions were often caused by equipment failure including defective pressure gages and malfunctioning safety valves.
Reactive Chemical Processes
Proper chemical storage and chemical mixing procedures are essential for preventing explosions. OSHA requires companies to maintain a Process Safety Management Program (PSMP) that is designed to help protect workers who are tasked with handling materials that are inherently explosive, or that can become explosive when mixed with other chemicals. The purpose of the PSMP is to create a safe work environment that won’t harm employee health, or have a negative impact on the health and safety of individuals who are within the vicinity.
Elements of these plans include:
- Providing adequate safety information to employees
- A full hazard analysis of the way the materials are used
- Adherence to detailed operating procedures
- Training and monitoring of employees
- Thorough safety reviews and incident evaluation
- Completion of compliance audits
- Emergency planning and response
At the core of the PSMP is Process Safety Information, or PSI. Companies are required to maintain information related to toxicity, corrosivity, permissible exposure limits, and thermal and chemical stability. Coupled with this, they are also required to detail the processes they are using and the ways the chemicals react with one another, as well as the equipment, during the manufacturing process. Companies must show that their processes and the chemicals they utilize are on par with generally accepted good engineering practices and any existing codes or regulations.
Failures are Deadly
Workers tasked with handling explosives, or who may come into contact with explosives during the course of their duties must be provided with adequate training and safety information prior to their entering the worksite. When they are not, the result can be fatal. In 2015, OSHA investigated the Omega Protein Plant in Mississippi following a welding incident that ignited methane and hydrogen sulfide that was contained within a storage tank. The resulting explosion killed one worker, and seriously injured another. OSHA issued 13 citations to the company after finding they had failed to adhere to safety regulations that would have isolated and removed the explosive danger prior to the workers commencing their welding tasks.
Repeated Safety Violations are Ominous Precursors to Disaster
The explosion at Omega Protein Plant was avoidable. The company had been cited for many of the same safety violations in 2012. In particular, regarding their wastewater storage tank which was a known safety hazard. Their willful neglect in mitigating the hazard led to the death of one employee, and the serious injury of another. Closer to home, an explosion in Chicago Heights in September 2014 occurred when a gas-powered forklift operated by Polychem Services, Inc. ignited and injured two workers. The company was fined $100,000 dollars for multiple safety violations. Six of these violations were considered willful; of these, four were considered serious and were responsible for creating the dangerous conditions that led to the blast and subsequent injuries. Polychem Services, Inc. had been previously cited by OSHA in a 2010 incident that had caused severe burns to an employee. In both incidents, the company had failed to provide adequate safety equipment and training to employees. As with many explosive incidents, inadequate safety protocols, lax training, and the failure to provide safety equipment are common causes of serious injury or wrongful death.
Employer & Manufacturer Liability
Workers who are injured by an explosive blast have the right to file workers’ compensation claims and personal injury lawsuits against employers who negligently violate safety protocols. Workers may also file a lawsuit against manufacturers of defective equipment that ignited an explosion, or against the manufacturer(s) of safety equipment that failed to adequately protect a worker. In cases where a worker has been killed, surviving family members may also file a wrongful death lawsuit. Individuals who have been injured due to an employer’s willful disregard for explosive handling safety should contact a Chicago workers’ compensation lawyer to discuss their legal options. When workers are injured in an explosion, they may seek compensation for pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages, loss of quality of life, and punitive damages for willful neglect and disregard for worker safety.