Deadly explosion caused by poor safety program

A series of failures and inadequacies in the safety program were to blame for the explosion and fire at a New Jersey chemical plant that killed five people, according to a report issued recently by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), both in Washington, DC.

The incident occurred in April 1995 at Napp Technologies in Lodi, NJ. The chemical company was conducting a blending operation involving water-reactive chemicals. OSHA and the EPA determined the most likely cause of the accident was the inadvertent introduction of water and heat into the highly water-reactive mixture of aluminum powder and sodium hydrosulfite. Workers realized the chemicals were beginning to react dangerously and began an emergency procedure to empty the contents from the blender, hoping to halt the reaction. The mixture exploded during that procedure.

Five employees were killed. The explosion and subsequent fire destroyed most of the plant while also destroying or significantly damaging many nearby businesses. Hundreds of residents were evacuated after the accident released thousands of gallons of chemicals, which were washed into streets and a nearby river by the firefighting efforts.

Among the causes of the disaster, the investigators list an inadequate process hazards analysis that resulted in not taking appropriate preventive actions; inadequate standard operating procedures and training; inadequate information in making an important decision; inappropriate equipment; inadequate communication between the company and a client for which it was performing dangerous work; and inadequate training of fire brigade members.

For instance, investigators found that the company’s process hazard analysis identified the water reactivity of the chemicals involved, but it did not adequately address the factors that could lead to a reaction. Standard operating procedures did not adequately address how to shut down the blending process if a problem occurred. In the actual incident, the workers were aware that the mixture was in danger of igniting, but they did not know if emptying the blender would make the situation better or worse.

The investigation also determined the blender was inappropriate for the task. OSHA fined the employer $101,600 and required new safety measures. The agency also has announced that the fatal accident is prompting a possible change in the process safety management standard so that more reactive chemicals are included in the list of toxic and reactive chemicals.