After a worker succumbed to a deadly release of 20,000 pounds of the toxic methyl mercaptan, and three others died of asphyxiation in attempting to come to his rescue, the once revered DuPont safety culture is now coming into question.

The release in November 2014 at the DuPont Laporte, TX, facility cascaded from the initial worker falling to the release and then three others coming to his rescue was a result of unsafe conditions, said officials at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

As a result, OSHA place DuPont in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

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After the initial investigation into the four deaths, OSHA found hazards that prompted the inspection at the facility to expand under the National Emphasis Program for chemical facilities.

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OSHA issued citations to DuPont for three willful, one repeat and four serious violations at their chemical manufacturing plant in La Porte. The agency has proposed penalties of $273,000 for these new violations.

“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 Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “Nothing can bring these workers back to their loved ones. I hope that our continued scrutiny into this facility and into working conditions at other DuPont plants will mean no family ever suffers this loss again. We here at OSHA want DuPont and the chemical industry as a whole to hear this message loud and clear.”

The Severe Violator Enforcement Program concentrates resources on inspecting employers who have demonstrated indifference toward creating a safe and healthy workplace by committing willful or repeated violations, and/or failing to abate known hazards. It also mandates follow-up inspections to ensure compliance with the law.

Headquartered in Delaware, E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co., (commonly known as DuPont) received citations in May for eight serious and one repeat violation regarding the fatalities with a penalty of $99,000. The company contested the citations. In addition, the company received citations at their Darrow, Louisiana facility in November 2014 and Deepwater, New Jersey facility in December 2014 for similar process safety management violations.

DuPont employs 63,000 people with operations in about 90 countries globally. The La Porte location employs 313 workers who manufacture pesticides and other chemicals for the company.

Back in February, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) found four design issues in its investigation of the incident.

Rafael Moure-Eraso, then chairperson of the CSB, said although DuPont has made great efforts to improve safety at their facilities, the company has also had three deadly incidents in the last five years; the latest of which was the poisonous gas leak at their LaPorte plant last November.

“Not only DuPont, but the industry as a whole must do much better,” Moure-Eraso said, adding “it is clear that the current process safety regulatory system is in need of reform.”

The CSB noted in their initial field investigation of the LaPorte incident, which is only 50 percent complete, the team found four design issues that contributed to the accident:
1. The process included several interconnections between the methyl mercaptan supply line and a chemical vent system, which allowed a toxic leak into an unexpected location, where workers ended up exposed with fatal consequences.
2. The chemical vent system, intended to safely remove harmful vapor from process vessels, had a design shortcoming that allowed liquid to accumulate inside. This liquid regularly caused pressure buildups in the vent, and operators needed to manually drain the liquid to prevent safety issues from interconnected equipment, such as reactors.
3. The vent drain that operators had to use was open to the atmosphere, meaning workers ended up exposed to whatever chemicals drained from the vent system.
4. The building’s design was in such a way that even had ventilation fans been working on the day of the accident, it could not necessarily protect workers from chemical exposure. And the CSB found those vents were not, in fact, working at the time of the accident.

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