Chemical company fined for safety violations

The Occupational Safety and Health Administra-tion has simultaneously issued citations and signed a settlement agreement with Celanese Chemicals in Bucks, AL, with the employer agreeing to accept five unclassified violations of OSHA standards with assessed fines totaling $250,000.

The settlement follows an OSHA inspection of an accident that caused one fatality and one serious injury. The accident occurred at the Bucks facility after a power failure on Sept. 4, 1999.

According to Lana Graves, OSHA’s Mobile (AL) area director, the power outage set off a dangerous chemical reaction. Sodium hydrosulfite in one of the dryers in the hydro unit of the plant began to rapidly decompose, releasing dangerous sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gases. Several employees working in the area donned self-contained breathing apparatuses and tried unsuccessfully to stop the decomposition by flooding the dryer with water.

Two employees exposed to toxic gases

Graves explained that two of the employees, exhausted by their emergency response efforts, entered the control room, a place they considered to be safe, and removed their self-contained breathing apparatuses. That proved to be a mistake.

"Upon restoration of power to the plant, toxic gases were drawn into the control room through a hole in the ventilation system, exposing both employees to high levels of toxic gases," she explains.

One of the employees died instantly, and the other is currently hospitalized in a long-term care facility.

OSHA’s investigation of the accident found five violations of safety standards, two of which fell under the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s General Duty Clause. Those included failure to provide a source of backup electrical power so that dryers could be positioned, exhaust fans could operate, and the control room’s ventilation system could be adequately maintained to ensure the integrity of its atmosphere in the event of a total power failure or process abnormality.

The company also was cited for lack of an adequately designed water deluge system that would safely control and dispose of the dryer contents in the event of an unplanned decomposition, and failure to calibrate the dryer thermometers in accordance with the employer’s written procedures.

The remaining three citations were issued for:

• failure to provide fall protection in the form of scaffolds for employees working three stories above ground level;

• failure to provide adequate refresher training for emergency responders and incident commanders as required by the emergency response standard;

• failure to provide adequate training to employees, contractors, and outside emergency responders regarding the physical, chemical, and health hazards of the hazardous materials being used in the work area and their decomposition products such as hydrogen sulfide.

All of the cited violations were corrected by the employer prior to issuance of the citations and signing of the settlement agreement. As part of the settlement, Celanese Chemicals agreed to these steps:

• hire an outside consultant to conduct an independent investigation of the accident, results of which will be shared with OSHA;

• contribute $25,000 to local emergency medical services to be used as needed for equipment and other improvements;

• report to OSHA’s Mobile Area Office, for the period of one year, all events involving decomposition of sodium hydrosulfite resulting in an incident investigation;

• conduct annual mock emergency response drills, including evaluation by emergency response experts and written reports of effectiveness;

• ensure availability of telephone service within the plant at all times;

• produce, and present at an appropriate industry meeting, a position paper titled "Lessons Learned" regarding the incident that occurred on Sept. 4, 1999;

• pay the assessed fine of $250,000 within 30 days of the signing of the agreement.

"We worked with Celanese Chemicals to reach an agreement that provides safety enhancements for company employees, the chemical industry, and the general community," Graves says. "Hope-fully, these commitments by the employer will provide information that can be used to identify probable causes and determine appropriate methods to prevent and control similar incidents in the future.

"We think this agreement provides a more significant impact than just issuance of conventional citations," she says. "It also demonstrates OSHA’s efforts to see new ways for advancing the cause of safety without the potential cost and burden of lengthy litigation."