Have DuPont’s safety programs, which it markets to other companies, just suffered an embarrassing black eye?
In an update of its investigation into a chemical leak and fatalities at a DuPont plant in La Porte, TX, the head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board noted that the agency has investigated three fatal incidents at the company’s facilities in a five-year period.
While CSB investigations look at technical reasons why workplace disasters take place, the agency also looks for underlying causes.
CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso already has an idea of what an underlying problem at DuPont is:
“What we are seeing here in this incident in La Porte is definitely a problem of safety culture in the corporation of DuPont.”
Calling out the safety culture of any company is a serious accusation. But it takes on even more meaning when it’s applied to a company that sells safety programs and notes that its own safety rules go back more than two centuries.
Moure-Eraso said the frequency of these major, fatal incidents at DuPont is a concern for the CSB:
- In January 2010, the rupture of a braided steel hose at DuPont’s manufacturing plant in Belle, WV, resulted in a worker’s death. The CSB found DuPont hadn’t used the safest materials for the hose and hadn’t replaced it on the required maintenance schedule.
- The same year, hot sparks produced by welding ignited flammable vapors inside a chemical storage tank that hadn’t been effectively isolated from a hazardous process at a DuPont facility near Buffalo, NY. One worker was killed, another one was injured.
- The latest incident, on Nov. 15, 2014, was “the most severe” according to Moure-Eraso. Four workers were killed at the La Porte plant during the release of more than 23,000 pounds of methyl mercaptan, a highly toxic, flammable and volatile liquid.
At La Porte, a toxic leak happened in an unexpected location. The chemical vent system had a design shortcoming that allowed liquid to accumulate. The vent drain that operators had to use was open to the atmosphere. That led to workers being exposed to the chemicals that were drained.
It appears a series of safety failures led to the leak and four deaths.
Regarding those failures, CSB lead investigator Dan Tillema said, “I think most of the things that had gone on here had become normalized and had become a way of life at the DuPont facility.”
Where have we heard this before?
Moure-Eraso sees a pattern, not only at DuPont, but throughout the chemical industry:
“We have found that not only DuPont, but the industry as a whole must do much better … We have found common factors contributing to major accidents like the one at DuPont La Porte … the latest accident at DuPont is one of many incidents investigated by the CSB where we believe it will become clear that the process design was not as safe as possible.”
DuPont released its own statement. An excerpt:
“Safety has been a core value and constant priority at DuPont since our founding. We first implemented safety rules in 1811 and we have been engaged in a continuous process to improve ever since. We are responding to this tragedy in a way that reinforces our absolute focus on safety and enables us to learn from it so we can find ways to be an even better company.”
Regarding the La Porte incident, the statement said, “It is premature for us to comment.”
I used to live and work in Wilmington, DE, the location of DuPont’s corporate headquarters. I’ve asked current and former DuPont employees about the company’s legendary safety program. Responses come in two types:
- You hear the DuPont safety gospel. These employees have taken the strict safety rules to heart, and when asked, they’re ready to proclaim them.
- You get an eye roll accompanied by statements like, “It’s over the top.”
No matter which response you get, it’s obvious that the company spends a lot of time with these employees regarding safety.
The people I spoke to are corporate headquarter employees. They spend most of their time in an office setting. They either rarely or never visit a DuPont plant.
If the company puts a high concentration on safety with these employees, how does that square with what happened at the three DuPont plants in the last five years?
It’s difficult to figure out until you consider the CSB’s comments regarding another workplace disaster in the recent past, the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers in 2010.
The CSB said BP was sweating the small stuff. The oil company and its partners focused on personal injuries from hazards like dropped objects and slip-and-falls.
“A number of past CSB investigations have found companies focusing on personal injury rates while virtually overlooking looming process safety issues,” the CSB’s Moure-Eraso said in 2012.
While it may be premature to draw this conclusion about DuPont, given what we know about the reputation of the company’s safety culture and what the CSB has to say, you have to wonder.
What do you think about this situation? Let us know in the comments.