Five DuPont workers - four of them already dead or dying - had been trapped for an hour by poisonous gases inside a pesticide plant when another worker called 911 to report an emergency at 4:13 a.m. read the leed of a Houston (TX) Chronicle article heded Deadly DuPont leak exposes safety, response failures. The Chronicle's sub-hed read: Chemical plant officials slow to react to disaster, minimized risk to fire crews, public in first 911 call.
The Chronicle article was carried by other media including the Austin (TX) Statesman that headlined Report: plant's chemicals not listed in 911 call.
Four workers killed by poisonous gas during a recent chemical leak were trapped inside the Texas pesticide plant for an hour before anyone called 911, and no one told dispatchers what substances were inside.
The DuPont plant in La Porte typically housed as much as 250 tons of highly flammable methyl mercaptan, the Houston Chronicle reported Sunday.
But it also contained at least some methyl isocyanate. That's the same chemical that escaped a Bhopal, India, pesticide plant in 1984, killing more than 2,200 people in the world's worst industrial accident.
And now the problems begin.
According to newspaper accounts, when the event finally was called in to 9-1-1, the caller from the plant allegedly
- (a) Failed to tell the 9-1-1 duty person that there were at least two dangerous chemicals at the plant (methyl isocyanate and methyl mercaptan), and
(b) That the accident did not endanger the people near the plant.
I once worked for a company that made automotive airbags. The company used Class A explosives to activate the airbags and consequently had the explosives on hand in quantity.
The local fire brigade was aware of the explosives and any hazardous materials on the grounds.
Later I lived in Charleston WV downwind of "Chemical Valley."
Everyone, not only Emergency Services, but the community as well, knew what was manufactured by the local chemical plant and they knew what to do if something went "bump in the night." Even local buses bore signs on the sides telling residents what to do if an emergency was declared.
In both instances, the local fire brigade had copies of the (then) Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for each chemical that could put responders in harm's way. The MSDS - now simply Safety Data Sheets (SDS) - contain information about the chemical and how to stay safe - is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) needed? If so, what type; it's all in the SDS.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) requires chemical manufacturers, distributors, or importers to provide Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) (formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets or MSDSs) to communicate the hazards of hazardous chemical products.
There was a relatively recent event - I don't recall where or what substances were involved - that required the surrounding community to take action.
The company held annual exercises with the local fire brigade and included the community in its safety effort.
This paid off when there was a fire at the facility.
Everyone knew what was on site and how to extinguish the blaze (in this case, with chemicals, not water which would have worsened the situation).
All because everyone knew what was on hand and what had to be done to protect people and property.
While no one would suggest using "scare tactics" on the neighbors, a well-planned, honest public relations effort letting the neighbors know what is on site and what to do if something goes amiss will go a long way to preventing illness, injury, and death - and the resulting legal action against the company.
Making certain local emergency responders know what is on site, and what PPE they may need is simply good common sense, but (apparently) some management needs to be reminded and some community governments need to insist that organizations share their knowledge of dangerous materials.
Risk Management practitioners should diplomatically point out the impact of failing to
- Advise local responders what is on site and how to deal with the on-site materials (share SDSs with the responder organizations) and
Develop and implement a community education program (PR program) to let the neighbors (a) know what is on site and (b) what to do if there is an accident: how will the neighbors be alerted, what they must do.
Pointing out the risks may not be sufficient to get action from Very Senior Management and Line Managers, but pointing out the IMPACT for failing to act may - may - make an impression resulting in the desired reactions.
There are a number of sites on the Internet where, according to the Interactive Learning Paradigms, Incorporated (ILPI) Web site, SDSs can be accessed for free.