Dow Chemical’s “exemplary” worker safety program, an utter failure for Brian Johns, 45, burn victim

[Updated below (July 12, 2013)]

[Updated below (June 21, 2013)]

“His skin was on fire,” is the lead sentence in a story that I knew wouldn’t have a happy ending.  Dianna Wray of the Houston Press writes about the July 2012 incident at Dow Chemical/Rohm & Haas plant in Deer Park, TX which took the life of Brian Johns, 45.

“July 17, 2012, was another ordinary day for Johns. He pulled up in his pickup truck to the chemical plant he’d worked at as an operator for more than a decade and started his shift on the dot at 5 p.m.  He moved through the massive construction of interconnected pipes and lines, doing his rounds. He swung open the door on the ammonia recycling unit and walked inside to change the cartridge filter.  The units are sealed with round metal doors like the ones on a submarine. Johns was changing the filter on one of these units — the filter connected to a line through which a mixture of hot water and chemicals including anhydrous cyanide ran continuously — when there was a loud bang as the casing sealing the unit exploded, letting loose a spray of chemicals and scalding-hot water. The force of the blast slammed into Johns, sending him flying.”

Mr. Johns suffered painful treatments and surgeries for the severe burns that covered 65 percent of his body.  He succumb to the injuries a few weeks later, but not before telling his family and two attorneys why he was injured.  Wray writes:

“He told them how the casing around the unit was old, how things like that went unreported at the plant because they would cost the company money. ­Instead of replacing the casing entirely, company men had rigged up the repairs. Then, when he was changing the filter, the unit ­exploded.”

Employers cutting corners and putting lives at risk is nothing new.  It contributes to far too many injuries, illnesses and deaths of workers.   But the Dow Chemical/Rohm & Haas plan in Deer Park, TX was supposedly different.  Since 2000, it has been designated by federal OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Progam as a Star site.  According to OSHA:

“The Star Program recognizes the safety and health excellence of worksites where employees are successfully protected from fatality, injury, and illness by the implementation of comprehensive and effective workplace safety and health management systems. These worksites are self-sufficient in identifying and controlling workplace hazards.”

The VPP site where Brian Johns worked failed on all counts.   Following Mr. Johns’ death, OSHA inspectors conducted an inspection at the Dow Chemical plant.  They found serious hazards and conditions that certainly don’t represent “safety and health excellence.”  All of the violations involved failures in the company’s process safety management—a fundamental safety system for plants involved in processing highly hazardous and volatile chemicals.

But the contradictions don’t end there.  The plant’s most recent risk management plan, as required by US EPA, touts its safety program:

“We take a systematic, proactive approach to preventing accidental releases of hazardous chemicals. Our management systems address each of the key features of successful prevention programs.”

Dow’s plan notes specifically:

“All of our processes have comprehensive information that is used to guide the choice of process and control technologies, operating parameters, and inspection intervals for equipment such as pipes, vessels, and protective systems.”

But, one of the violations identified by OSHA following Mr. Johns’ death was Dow did not have process information for all of their units.

Dow’s plan also claims:

“We have a comprehensive inspection and preventive maintenance system that ensures that equipment maintains its capability to contain the process chemicals.”

But, one of the violations identified by OSHA following Mr. Johns’ death was Dow did not inspect equipment pursuant to manufacturers’ specifications or good engineering practices (1910.119(j)(4)(iii)).  Another violation involved their failure to correct equipment deficiencies (1910.119(j)(5)).

Dow’s plan also says:

“Employees participate in all aspects of the prevention program.”

But, one of the violations identified by OSHA was Dow did not involve employees in the investigation of the incident that led to Mr. Johns’ death.

How much faith should a community put in the rest of the Dow Deer Park’s risk management plan?

In April, Dow Chemical and OSHA settled the inspection case stemming from Mr. Johns’ death.  Dow paid a $23,000 penalty.  Six weeks later, the assistant secretary for OSHA, David Michaels, released a long-awaited policy memorandum concerning fatalities at VPP sites.  (Special credit to Chris Hamby at the Center for Public Integrity for propelling this issue to the national stage.)   One of the most notable features in the new policy is an obligation for OSHA to determine whether a VPP site should remain in the program following a work-related fatality.  It reads:

“When a fatality is deemed work-related, or when a site is placed in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program, or when a willful violation(s) is issued to the VPP participant….the Region will issue a “Notice of Intent to Terminate” within 10 days of the completion of the enforcement inspection.”

This new OSHA policy took effect May 29, 2013, long after the horrible incident to took Brian Johns’ life.  He died because of serious lapses in Dow Chemical’s process safety management system.  It’s too bad that they get to keep their special OSHA “Star” status.  I know in the eyes of Brian Johns’ family, the Deer Park plant didn’t live up to it.

[Update, June 21, 2013:  When I wrote this post yesterday, I relied on a list available on federal OSHA’s website of current VPP sites.  The Dow Chemical/Rohm & Haas plant in Deer Park, TX was on that list (screenshot (June 21, 2013, 3:00 pm (ET)), see page 28.)   Today, I was contacted by a reliable source who informed me that the facility was terminated from OSHA’s VPP program in December 2012.   Federal OSHA had not updated its website to reflect their termination.  As of 5:15 pm (ET) today, the Dow Chemical/Rohm & Haas plant in Deer Park, TX no longer appears as a VPP site on OSHA’s website (screenshot (June 21, 2013, 5:15 pm (ET), see page 26.]    I commend OSHA for wanting the VPP designation to truly mean a worksite of safety and health excellence.]

[Update, July 12, 2013: The Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby elaborates on OSHA’s revision to its VPP for incidents involving a work-related death.  His story clarifies that any work-related death at a VPP site will result in an automatic notice of termination.  (The language in the directive was clunky, in my opinion; glad that Hamby sought the clarification from OSHA.)  He notes that a June 2013 fatality at the Albermarle Corp plant in Magnolia, AR, is the first the test the new OSHA policy.  Hamby notes:

“As of July 11, the company still was touting its VPP “Star” status on its website, despite a provision in the new policy that places sites where a death has occurred on a sort of probationary status while the investigation is ongoing. Such sites are not supposed to display the VPP flag or other paraphernalia – status symbols within many industries.”]

 

 

Comments

  1. #1 mike cross
    United States
    June 26, 2013

    I do not want to get on a rant here,BUT,it is a fact that year after year,decade after decade, the US oil,gas, and chemical industry,maybe not with intent but for sure with neglect, blind eye, hiding behind policy and proceedure, behavior based safety programs,and other tactic continue to kill our coworker,friends and family members,all for profit.
    OSHA in my opinion,although they are one of our only resources to defend our employees, has been made impotent thru legislation,lack of funding and corporate legal manipulation.
    That is a view from a union worker who has some training,some incite into policy/proceedure, safety committee, and little or no fear of disipline or retribution on the job. I cannot even imagine what a non union worker confronts every day! OH wait, now since I retired from my refining job I am an organizer and see and hear about the horrors almost every campaign.
    I hope that there is a special suffering for corporate bosses that only look at profit and lie,cheat and steal from a safety culture that could have saved a life,yes even one.
    When we as workers die, it does not just kill us,it ruins families,childrens lives,and friends as well. The bosses and “SAFETY” professionals from corporate are not put in jail for killing someone or for that matter allowing the systems of safety to fail,be ignored, or just lie, like it appears “DOW”DID AGAIN and kill some more employees and profits are not affected.
    The only real way to make “SAFETY FIRST” is to make it hurt the corporate pocket book, the bosses lose not only there job for killing or allowing the control they and they alone have to run the bussiness,but they lose golden umbrellas,pensions, job potintal in the future and the ability of the decesed to procecute the killers from plant mgr, shift formans,safety officers etc and then SAFETY WILL BE FIRST because it costs something instead of how it is now “SAFETY FIRST” as long as it doesn’t cost anything but a life(s). A sad,sad comentary on sinceless taking of workers lives.
    Please do not be duped by some pompas corporate goon who come on here and tries to defend what they do.
    You may wonder why I say what I do,but sadly it is because I lived after 20+ years in that type of culture of” say” safety first and” live” profit first. Some of my friends,( one cooked(boiled) to death, one burnt to death, and one inhaled enough heat and fire to cook his lungs to the point he gave up after several days fighting),died and I still walk on and their families still suffer, the money did not take away the pain and loss, the lawyers and families were paid and the company still stands today as a monument to profits.
    IMHO, I thank and should think every one that fills a fuel tank, thank a worker, who was killed to fill that tank. deaths that need not happen.

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