DuPont considered, then rejected, safer handling method for chemical that killed worker

Company memo estimated phosgene safety improvement would cost $143 million per life saved

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A chemical plant in West Virginia

 Jeff Gentner/AP

DuPont, one of the world’s biggest chemical manufacturers, boasts of adhering to “the highest standards” for worker and environmental protection.

A new report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, made public today, suggests otherwise.

After investigating three chemical releases – one of which killed a worker -- at a DuPont plant in Belle, W.Va., during a 33-hour period in 2010, the board found a number of “common deficiencies” on the company’s part, including inadequate maintenance of vital equipment and failure to learn from near-misses.

Most damning, however, are DuPont documents attached to the board’s report. They show the company rejected as too expensive a safer method of handling phosgene, a compound so deadly it was used as a chemical weapon in World War I, at the Belle plant.

Employee Danny Fish died after being exposed to phosgene, a chemical intermediate used to make insecticides and other products, in January 2010 at the plant, eight miles east of Charleston, W.Va.

A DuPont memorandum, dated May 19, 1988, weighed the costs and benefits of handling phosgene in four different configurations. The company rejected the safest option – building a fully enclosed, $2 million phosgene generation plant, with an air scrubber to catch accidental releases – and decided to continue receiving the chemical in cylinders from an offsite supplier.

An enclosed phosgene plant could be expected to save 14.4 lives over 10,000 years compared to the next-safest option, a generation plant open to the atmosphere, DuPont engineers observed in the memo, setting “a value of life plus public outrage at $143 [million]. It may be that in the present circumstances the business can afford $2 [million] for an enclosure; however, in the long run can we afford to take such action which has such a small impact on safety and yet sets a precedent for all highly toxic material activities [sic].”

Another DuPont memo, dated April 29, 1988, questioned General Electric’s decision to spend $40 million on an enclosed phosgene plant, which “represents a spending rate of about $4 billion per life saved. Such a precedent is neither in the interests of GE, DuPont, the chemical industry, nor the public as a whole.”

In a prepared statement this morning, DuPont said, “Safety is a core value at DuPont and safety is our most important priority. Our goal is zero -- meaning we believe incidents are preventable and we are fully committed to operating our facilities safely.”

The company added that in June of last year, it “completed its own investigation report of the incidents and, since then, has implemented all recommendations resulting from the investigation. DuPont provided its report to the CSB [Chemical Safety Board] and other agencies. We will continue to cooperate with the CSB, including reviewing the draft report and providing input to the CSB.”

Fish, a longtime employee at Belle, on Jan. 23, 2010 was sprayed on the chest and face with phosgene from a degraded hose that “failed catastrophically,” according to the Chemical Safety Board. He died the following evening.

The board calculated that Fish received a lethal dose of the chemical in less than one-tenth of a second. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that serious phosgene-related effects, including heart failure and fluid in the lungs, can take up to 48 hours after exposure to appear.

After investigating the accident, the board found that DuPont’s own engineers had voiced concerns about the materials used to make the phosgene hoses and that a “similar hose failure almost occurred a few hours before the exposure of the worker, but the near-miss did not prompt an investigation” by the company.

The board also noted that no alarm sounded when the fatal release occurred and that no DuPont employee “with process knowledge was in place and assigned to convey timely and useful information” to emergency responders, who were told, incorrectly, by a guard at the plant gate that there had been no chemical discharge. Such misinformation could put responders at risk of exposure themselves, the safety board said.

A DuPont plant in Mobile, Ala., which, like the Belle plant, uses cylinders of phosgene, has better worker protections, including automated alarms and an “emergency scrub system,” according to the board.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited DuPont for 11 violations and proposed $43,000 in fines in connection with Fish’s death. That accident was preceded by releases of two other toxic chemicals: methyl chloride and fuming sulfuric acid, also known as oleum, on the mornings of Jan. 22 and Jan. 23, respectively.

No injuries were reported in either case. But the safety board criticized DuPont for having an unreliable alarm system, which allowed the methyl chloride leak to go undetected for five days, and for failing to find corrosion in an oleum pipe.

The board also noted that DuPont has been “recognized throughout industry as a safety innovator and leader,” and that the Belle plant had the best safety record of any of the company’s production facilities until the series of accidents last year.

DuPont employees told board investigators, however, that a number of highly knowledgeable operations and maintenance workers at the plant had recently retired or were nearing retirement age. “A loss of plant-specific knowledge, or ‘corporate memory fade’ has contributed [to] several incidents in industry...as new hires cannot replace years of experience...,” the board said.

Like the National Transportation Safety Board, the Chemical Safety Board can investigate accidents and make recommendations but has no regulatory authority. Among the recommendations in today’s report: Better near-miss reporting and investigation by DuPont, and stricter OSHA standards for highly toxic gases kept in cylinders.

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