Keeping Specialty Chemicals Safe: Lessons Gained from the DuPont Insecticide Plant Tragedy

specialty chemicals
A 2014 accident in a specialty chemicals plant caused the deaths of four workers. How can we prevent this tragedy from happening again?
Image source: Flickr CC user Peter Van den Bossche

On the evening of November 15, 2014, four workers died as the result of a toxic chemical leak at a DuPont insecticide plant in La Porte, Texas. The tragedy came about when an employee attempted to clear a blocked pipe containing methyl mercaptan, a chemical used to manufacture the insecticide Lannate. Unfortunately, the valve was faulty, resulting in the release of 24,000 pounds of the toxic gas. The vapor killed the worker, along with three other employees who came to her aid.

As much as we wish otherwise, this is hardly the first time a fatal accident has occurred at a specialty chemicals plant. The Bhopal gas tragedy claimed the lives of 2,000 people when an Indian pesticide factory leaked toxic gas into the surrounding city. Even more people were injured. What’s galling, however, is that the Bhopal tragedy took place over 30 years ago. Why do these accidents keep happening? Isn’t there anything we can do to prevent them?

Specialty Chemicals Plants Must Remain Vigilant About Safety

Improper procedures and complacent attitudes toward workplace safety often form the root cause of specialty chemicals accidents. The tragedy at the DuPont insecticide plant is no different. An ongoing safety investigation uncovered faulty procedures, design flaws and inadequate planning at the facility.1 As a result of these violations, OSHA fined the company $273,000 this past summer, in addition to the $99,000 in fines issued last year after the accident took place.2 This was hefty penalty to pay for a plant that ended up shutting down in the wake of the tragedy.

The damage to DuPont extends far beyond fines, however. The company has been placed on a special list that subjects them to increased scrutiny and mandated follow-up inspections. Its reputation has been tarnished, resulting in loss of trust in the eyes of both employees and the public. All of these are things organizations want to avoid. What’s sadly ironic, though, is that they could have been prevented.

Strategies to Ensure Safety at Specialty Chemicals Companies

The Texas facility lapsed in three major areas: education, incomplete safety procedures and improper storage and handling.3 For example, the three employees who came to the aid of the original worker failed to wear breathing protection. It wasn’t even a matter of their choosing not to; they were never told this was necessary in the first place. Considering the fact that methyl mercaptan is toxic in high concentrations, wearing breathing protection should have been part of standard operating protocols when handling the gas leak.

When it comes to safety, specialty chemicals firms can take the following steps to protect their employees, workplace and ultimately, bottom line:

  • Determine proper measures to store chemicals on-site: 
    Chemicals have different storage requirements. Flammables need to be stored in the correct container. Corrosives and reactives must be kept separately. OSHA found that the storage tanks at the La Porte facility lacked proper insulation and relief valve systems, which contributed to the accident. Organizations must make sure that they’re storing materials correctly in order to avoid any future incidents.
  • Identify potential hazards:
    Chemicals have unique properties, some of which may be harmful to humans. It’s important to identify what the risks are and then provide education to employees. If workers don’t know about potential risks, how can they take steps to protect themselves?
  • Implement safe handling procedures:
    Once potential hazards are identified, then handling procedures can be established. If a material releases toxic vapor, then safety protocols should require that workers handle it only with proper ventilation. Safety protocols would also include what to do in the case of an accident. That way, emergency responders would know to wear breathing protection to avoid inhalation of toxic gas.

Managing the little details that go into effective chemical safety procedures may seem overwhelming but with the proper tools, firms can establish solutions that protect employees, workplace and public. BIOVIA CISPro is a chemical management system that helps specialty chemicals firms meet safety and regulatory requirements by keeping information in a centralized, cloud-based location. Companies can use the software to track chemical inventory used on-site in their facilities and reference linked safety data sheets for potential hazards, safe handling procedures and what to do in case of exposure. Is your organization interested in adopting a chemical management system to support your safety initiatives? Please contact us today to learn more about BIOVIA CISPro.

  1. “Chemical Safety Board Uncovers Flaws at the DuPont Insecticide Plant in La Porte, Texas,” October 1, 2015, http://ehstoday.com/industrial-hygiene/chemical-safety-board-uncovers-flaws-dupont-insecticide-plant-la-porte-texas
  2. “New OSHA Penalties for DuPont After Deadly Leak, July 9, 2015, http://www.texastribune.org/2015/07/09/new-osha-penalties-dupont-after-deadly-la-porte-le/
  3. “DuPont Slammed in Report on Fatal Plant Leak,” September 30, 2015, https://www.texastribune.org/2015/09/30/more-problems-dupont/

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