[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.”]