Earlier this year, we asked if DuPont’s safety programs had suffered an embarrassing black eye. Following OSHA’s recent action of placing the company into its Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP), the question is no longer “if,” but “how big?”
OSHA placed the chemical company in the SVEP following its investigation into the deaths of four workers at its plant in La Porte, TX. OSHA also issued $273,000 in fines to the company for three willful, one repeat and four serious violations.
In November 2014, a worker was overcome at the facility when a supply line released more than 20,000 pounds of methyl mercaptan, a deadly chemical. Three other workers came to the employee’s rescue, but all four were asphyxiated.
After the initial investigation into the four deaths, OSHA found hazards that led to an expanded look by the agency under the National Emphasis Program for chemical facilities.
The violations include failure to:
- compile process safety information regarding equipment
- conduct appropriate process safety analysis, and
- test and inspect process equipment.
“DuPont promotes itself as having a ‘world-class safety’ culture and even markets its safety expertise to other employers, but these four preventable workplace deaths and the very serious hazards we uncovered at this facility are evidence of a failed safety program,” said OSHA administrator David Michaels. “We here at OSHA want DuPont and the chemical industry as a whole to hear this message loud and clear.”
A DuPont spokesman said the company was “disappointed” in OSHA’s classification.
“We have not had a chance to review OSHA’s findings in detail,” he said. “We will work with the agency to better understand the citations and any further required abatement. Operating the La Porte site safely is our number one priority. We have and will continue to take the necessary steps to ensure all units are safe to operate.”
Earlier this year, in an update of its investigation into the chemical leak and deaths, Rafael Moure-Eraso, then head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), said DuPont had experienced “a problem of safety culture.”
So two heads of federal workplace safety agencies have both called out DuPont for safety failures in less than half a year.
And as Michaels noted, this isn’t just another chemical company. DuPont sells safety programs to other companies and often notes that its own safety rules go back more than two centuries.
DuPont has 15 days to decide what to do about the OSHA fines. The company can comply (unlikely), enter into informal talks with OSHA or appeal to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, which can become a long, drawn-out process.
It’s the same decision any company has to make once it’s been fined by OSHA. But for DuPont, the stakes are much higher because it’s chosen to be in the business of workplace safety.
It’s interesting to note that, compared to reactions from other companies once they’ve been fined by OSHA, DuPont’s initial statement is significantly more conciliatory. Whether that predicts more cooperative talks with OSHA to reach a settlement remains to be seen.
A side note to this story regarding the CSB: Earlier this year when we wrote about Moure-Eraso’s statements regarding DuPont’s workplace safety, the then-chair of the CSB noted that DuPont’s alleged process safety problems aren’t unique. Moure-Eraso saw a pattern throughout the chemical industry, stating, “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.”
Indeed, the DuPont situation bears some resemblance to what happened by BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers in 2010. Specifically, you have a company that pats itself on the back regarding safety that has suffered more than one recent incident in which workers died.
Getting back to the CSB and Moure-Eraso: Recently, the agency came under a lot of fire from both sides of the aisle in Congress for alleged mismanagement. Among the allegations were that Moure-Eraso and others used their private emails to conduct agency business.
The allegations and hearings have caused disruptions at the agency and have taken the focus (at least in the general media) away from the work the agency does to investigate chemical accidents and make recommendations to prevent similar ones.
OSHA and the CSB are independent of each other. OSHA’s findings regarding DuPont appear to corroborate the CSB’s initial take on the situation at the chemical giant.
It shows that somehow, despite years of complaints about the inner workings of the CSB, the agency’s important work has been able to continue, pointing out what needs to be done to prevent future chemical disasters. The CSB employees actually conducting the investigations have persevered.
Let’s hope the dysfunction at the CSB has come to an end, so that Congress can stop demonizing its inner workings and concentrate instead on what needs to be done to prevent employee deaths such as the four at DuPont’s La Porte facility.