Only 14 days after Gloria McInnis died in an explosion at a Goodyear plan in Houston, her husband Raymond McInnis testified before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Homeland Security.  At the June 25, 2008 hearing, Mr. McInnis explained why he was present and sharing his grief and pain in such a public forum:

“It is not easy for me but I came here today to talk about what happened to Gloria, but I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.  Neither would Gloria.”

The McInnis family’s nightmare was made particularly unbearable because they were originally told by a Goodyear employee that Mrs. Gloria McInnis, 55, was safe.  Later, the McInnis family learned that she was dead and had been inside in the plant for seven hours before she was found.  Mr. McInnis adored his wife and his words touch my soul with their sincerity.  Sadly, they are hauntingly familiar.  “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else”  –the somber refrain expressed by family members across the country and the globe who have lost loved ones from hazardous workplace conditions.

Indeed, I too don’t want these preventable deaths to happen to anyone else, but wanting and doing are two different things.  Hasn’t the time come for us to start “doing” to PREVENT fatal workplace injuries and illnesses?   Employers who “want” but don’t “do” should be held to account for their actions and decisions.

According to the Chemical Safety Board’s preliminary findings, the explosion at the Houston Goodyear plant that killed Mrs. Gloria McInnis was related to a heat exchanger “which used pressurized, liquid ammonia to cool chemicals that are later processed to make synthetic rubber.”  (Ammonia, by itself, is a very volatile compound.)  The process had been shut down for cleaning with steam, ammonia which remained in the exchanger was heated and pressure built up.  Because the pressure-relief device was blocked, the heat exchanger exploded violently.

Could this catastrophe been prevented?  Absolutely.  

At the same hearing where Mr. McInnis testified, I learned the following from the testimony of John Morawetz, Director of Health and Safety for the Int’l Chemical Workers Union Council:

“In this synthetic rubber operation, as in others, the pressure vessels such as reactors, storage tanks and process vessels are protected from excess pressures by pressure relief systems.  These systems consist of one or more relief valves that are pre-set to a certain level if an over-pressure situation occurs the valve will relieve the pressure until it again drops to the regulated amount.”

The problem with the relief systems at many facilities is that they relieve directly into the atmosphere.  In the 1970s and 1980s, many states passed legislation that required relief systems to relieve into an internal closed system.  This system can be a recovery system, flare stack or some other way of not having the explosive or flammable vapors relieve into the atmosphere.  Most of the legislation provided that the companies were not required to install the closed system if it was not feasible.  Companies could be exempted if they thought changing the system would be too expensive.  …Many, if not the majority, of these chemical facilities never installed the closed systems.” (emphasis added)

Mr. Morawetz offered additional recommendations to PREVENT deadly releases and explosions of highly hazardous chemicals:

“Chemical workers know first-hand how a plant works, what chemicals are used, how those chemicals react to one another and any particular facilities’ weaknesses.  We know the exact location of hazardous materials and we know if our training is really effective.  We also know if backup systems will work when the power goes out.  We are responsible for off-loading and loading chemical railway cars and transferring them around the plants.”

“All these responsibilities make chemical plant workers the first line of defense and explain why we believe employee involvement in the drafting and implementing of a plant’s chemical security plan is crucial.  it is a vital nationa resource that workers’ expertise—the same expertise that operates these plants everyday—be utilized.  All plants should take heed of its workers’ expertise and concerns–prior to an explosion occurring.”

“Another key element of improving the safety in plants must include a clear statement and defense of workers’ jobs if they face disciplinary action for reporting any significant security weaknesses at their facility.  Fear is a fact of life at all too many workplaces and jeopardizing one’s job by blowing the whistle is a risky thing to do.  Defending members’ jobs is regrettably all too common a task unions are forced to do.  Workers, who bravely come forward to protect themselves, their co-workers, and communities around the plant, should not fear losing their jobs when they speak out.  Whistleblower protection is vital in assuring the free exchange of ideas, improves security and ensures that effective measures are actually implemented.  Workers must have the ability to come forth and communicate program deficiencies without fear of retribution.”

Finally, “there are many steps and measures that could and should be taken to improve chemical plant safety and security.  Substituting less dangerous formulations, different size and better designed containers, or various engineering steps, can minimize the consequences of an accident or attack at a chemical plant.”

The Chemical Safety Board continues its investigation of the Goodyear plant disaster.  OSHA will be completing its assessment by December 10 of whether the company or contractors violated particular federal workplace standards.  

Does anybody know whether Goodyear is now “doing” rather than “wanting” PREVENTION?

Celeste Monforton, MPH, DrPH is with the Dept of Environmental & Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She and John Morawetz are active members of the American Public Health Association’s vibrant OHS Section.