DuPont under fire by Federal investigators

Federal investigators said DuPont should examine "all facets of its safety culture" and that could have fixed problems that led to one worker's death at a plant in Belle, WV last year


The U.S. Chemical Safety Board contrasted DuPont’s failures with its reputation as a company that sells workplace safety programs to other corporations.

“The events before and after the string of incidents in January 2010 suggest that the safety culture (at DuPont) has shifted,” the board wrote in a report. The company “is not operating as it has historically, and could benefit from an extensive examination of all facets of the safety culture, both within the facility and extending throughout the corporation.”

The chemical safety board faulted DuPont for maintenance, inspection and training deficiencies related to three chemical leaks discovered at the Belle plant during a 33-hour period in January 2010. The findings echoed those of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which last year fined the company $43,000 and cited it for “serious violations” in relation to the leaks.

Internal company documents released by investigators showed even though DuPont engineers knew for decades the equipment at the Belle facility could be safer, the company failed to heed their recommendations.

DuPont did not have an immediate response.

The safety board described several near misses at the Belle facility, but focused on a Jan. 23, 2010, incident that led to the death of an employee who had worked at the plant for 32 years. The worker suffered exposure to phosgene — a World War I choking agent used in plastics and pesticides — leaking from a corroded hose.

The investigators learned on the same day as the accident, which occurred on a Saturday afternoon, plant employees noticed the outer lining of a phosgene hose in that area of the plant had frayed, but decided to wait until Monday to tell supervisors. The report said plant managers didn’t have a system in place for reporting near misses on weekends.

Investigators also said the braided steel hoses didn’t meet DuPont’s own specifications. As early as 1987, a company expert had suggested to colleagues the phosgene hoses at Belle should be made from a different metal, Monel, that would be more resistant to corrosion. “Admittedly, the Monel hose will cost more than its stainless counterpart. However … costs will be less in the long run and safety will also be improved,” the official wrote.

The safety board said it didn’t know why the Belle facility didn’t heed that advice.

DuPont also missed warning signs foreshadowing the other two accidents, though no workers reported exposure after those incidents, the safety board said.

One day before the fatal leak, employees at the Belle plant discovered a problem in a separate part of the plant: Methyl chloride, an herbicide ingredient that can be fatal in high concentrations, had been leaking into the atmosphere for five days. Workers had continued using the equipment despite alarms indicating a disc used to control pressure had burst. Previously, DuPont’s safety auditors had warned the alarm system for that part of the equipment activated too often, leading workers to dismiss alarms as a nuisance, the safety board said.

On the following morning, a cloud of sulfuric acid and steam released from of a corroded pipe in another part of the Belle facility. DuPont had identified problems with pipes in that part of the plant in 2009, yet it hadn’t followed through on a recommendation they schedule them for preventative maintenance, the safety board investigators found.

After two hazardous leaks in as many days, managers at the Belle plant decided to temporarily stop work at the entire facility. Supervisors began arriving around noon on Jan. 23 to start planning a “safety pause” during which they would evaluate what had happened and how to respond. That meeting had barely begun when, at 2 p.m., the group got word of yet another emergency. This time, a worker suffered from exposure.

- Edited by Chris Vavra, Plant Engineering, 

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