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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Safety Deficiencies Cost the Lives of Four DuPont Workers

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The federal investigation into a poisonous gas leak that killed four workers last November at the DuPont plant in La Porte, Texas, said the chemical company could have prevented the leak, and revealed hazards that undermine the company’s claims of a world-class safety culture.

Workers died after being exposed to methyl mercaptan, a raw material used to manufacture an insecticide. They were draining waste gas from a piping at the unit, but were unaware that they were releasing the deadly gas that had built up in piping and a storage tank. DuPont said more than 23,000 pounds of the gas was released. According to OSHA, at these dangerous levels the gas depresses the central nervous system and affects the respiratory center, producing death by respiratory paralysis.

Despite its history as a safety leader in the chemical industry, an investigation has uncovered evidence of a failed safety program. “DuPont knew for years that safety hazards at its pesticide plant in La Porte, Texas were capable of killing workers and residents in the surrounding community, and yet the problems went unsolved”, according to a preliminary report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

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An initial investigation discovered that the fans were not working on the third floor where the toxic leak occurred, despite an “urgent” work order to have one fixed just a month before the tragic accident. As the investigation progressed, weaknesses and failures in the facility’s safety planning and procedures were also discovered. Investigators learned that even if the fans had been working, the overall ventilation system had so many problems that liquid routinely built up inside the building’s vents, requiring workers to drain the system manually, potentially exposing them to whatever chemicals had accumulated inside. While breathing equipment was available, it was not standard procedure for workers to use it when draining the piping. Investigators said if it was, the workers would be alive today. “Had the company assessed the dangers involved, or trained their employees on what to do if the ventilation system stopped working, they might have had a chance, said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA.

Following the leak, OSHA cited DuPont with 19 safety violations and levied nearly $300,000 in fines; in July, the chemical giant was added to OSHA’s “severe violator List.” This means OSHA will apply additional investigative tools in order to send a strong message that “OSHA has seen evidence of a broken safety culture at this facility and are concerned that unless steps are taken more workers could be hurt.” The plant was closed after the leak and will remain so until DuPont has executed a comprehensive and integrated plan to safely resume operations, including how workers are trained to know what hazards they could face.

This was not the first time the chemical giant was cited for safety violations. In 2011, the Chemical Safety Board found that “a series of preventable safety shortcomings” at a DuPont facility in Belle, West Virginia, contributed to a 2010 phosgene gas release that killed one worker. Also in 2010, an explosion during welding at a DuPont plant outside of Buffalo, N.Y., killed one worker. The board blamed the company’s failure to monitor flammable gas levels in a storage tank before welding for that accident. DuPont was also cited for similar safety-management violations last year at a plant in Darrow, La., and another near Pennsville Township, N.J.

While nothing can bring these workers back, continued scrutiny into the La Porte facility and the conditions at other DuPont plants will mean no family ever suffers such a loss again. Let the message be loud and clear: It is time that DuPont, and the chemical industry as a whole, can’t adopt safety measures sporadically or as a serious or fatal problem happens. Safety must come first! They must spend the time and money to prevent such incidents, rather than waiting until the aftermath of such a tragedy, an investigation, and lawsuits. History has shown that an investment in safety prevention is money well spent.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.