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Fatalities at DuPont

As many readers will have heard, there was a fatal accident at a DuPont plant in the Houston area over the weekend. Four workers were killed by methyl mercaptan (methanethiol), and here’s more on what happened. As is often the case, there were fatalities at the site of the leak, and more from those first trying to help.
Methanethiol itself is certainly toxic, although its powerful smell (which apparently reached 40 miles downwind of this accident) usually keeps anyone away from harmful concentrations of it. In the concentrations experienced next to a major leak, though, differences in toxicity for such gases are almost besides the point: just about anything can be deadly.
It’ll be some time before anyone finds out just what went wrong at the La Porte plant. A large chemical operation has plenty of inherent hazards; the question is whether these deaths could have been prevented, and how. One’s first assumption is that they could have been, and that this did not have to happen this way, but we’ll see what the investigation reveals. One detail that Houston Chronicle story notes is the lack of protective equipment (two of the employees killed appear to have come into the area without masks after responding to the first employee’s call for help). I would have to think that the only thing that would keep a person alive in such circumstances would be a full-face mask with its own oxygen supply. I don’t know if that’s what the last responder, who did have a mask, was carrying. That sort of equipment takes more time to put on than any sort of filter mask, but no filtration system alone would save someone from a room filling with methyl mercaptan, either.
So in memory of these four, here’s something that all of us who work in the lab can do today. Take a look around you. Remind yourself of where the fire extinguishers are (and there should be more than one kind). Think of how you’d get to the safety shower if you had to use it. And pick the door you’ll use if a situation get beyond that. It’s far easier to go over such details when things are quiet, and if you do that every so often you’ll have a much better chance of remembering where to go when you really need to.
And whenever you’re setting up an experiment that involve any noticeable hazard (pyrophoric reagent, toxic liquid or gas, potential exotherm), think for a moment about what might be most likely to go wrong, and also what the worst thing that could happen might be, and what you’d do about them. Is it dropping that bottle of phosgene solution on the floor? A fire started by your hydrogenation catalyst or your sodium hydride? An exotherm that sends your reaction pouring out over the hot plate or heating mantle? Picturing these things beforehand is never wasted time, because (as everyone with experience in the lab knows) such things do happen, and not on anyone’s schedule. Those four DuPont workers were getting ready to go home for the day when suddenly everything went wrong: in their memory, keep an eye out for what might go wrong in your own fume hood.

32 comments on “Fatalities at DuPont”

  1. M Yudkowsky says:

    “Thinking about” what you’d do is insufficient; you must practice.
    For example, did you ever use a fire extinguisher? Unless you use a sweeping motion — instead of trying to put out the fire bit by bit — you’ll empty it in seconds without putting out the fire.
    The emergency shower, the fire blanket, the eyewash station, the fire extinguisher, even the telephone — these are all crucial life-saving gear that require practice to use correctly in an emergency.

  2. Grignard says:

    a sad chronicle (4 accidents there) can be found here:
    http://www.csb.gov.

  3. D. C. Sessions says:

    And give some good, hard, thought to when the right thing to do is bug out. I spend a lot of time drilling trainees on “rescuer safety.” This is a reminder of why: one of those fatalities may have been unavoidable once whatever-it-was went south, but chances are the three others were totally preventable if they’d simply refused to turn “rescuers” into “victims.”

  4. David Borhani says:

    A few years ago I wrote a letter to C&EN, in response to another preventable and regrettable DuPont fatal accident: Will they ever learn? That the father of two of the four dead workers can comment in the Houston Chronicle article “This is a risk we all take” suggests not enough is changing at DuPont, and not fast enough. Their safety culture is broken.
    Safety is no accident.

  5. Chris Wood says:

    To Derek’s point, the most powerful and important tool for providing safety is not your lab goggles (which you bloody well better be wearing), but your brain. Thinking through what can go wrong, and planning for or preventing before hand is really the best way to stop an accident. Most of the ugly lab accidents in recent history could have been prevented if someone had stopped and thought “what could go wrong?” Risk is inherent in doing new things, but we can make it very very small.

  6. anon says:

    Such a tragic story and also crazy that the chemical could be detected that far from the plant (although we didn’t smell any in downtown houston)

  7. Anonymous says:

    #1 – Your comment is right on. One of my former employers required every employee to go through safety training every year. As part of this, everyone needed to use a fire extinguisher to put out an actual fire. They also covered the different types of fire extinguishers and which ones should be used for various fires. The single biggest problem that people had in using the fire extinguishers was getting rid of the pin that locks the extinguisher. I think the training was valuable just for that.
    I saw a documentary recently on the safety officer for Morgan Stanley, Rick Rescorla, one of the companies that had offices in the twin towers. He was a safety fanatic. Random monthly fire drills requiring the evacuation of the entire staff all the way down the stairwells to exit the building. The employees hated it. Until 9/11. When the first plane hit, nobody had any questions about what they needed to do. While the Port Authority told everyone to stay put, the Morgan Stanley employees put their evacuation plan into action, and they got the vast majority of their 3000 people out of the towers before they collapsed. They said the safety culture so ingrained that even the 250 people that were there for training just for the day knew where the nearest stairwells were.
    Would that all chemical companies put this philosophy into practice!

  8. oldnuke says:

    #6: IIRC, the olfactory detection limit is on the order of 1 part per billion, so it is not surprising at all.
    In Wilmington we had a 55 gallon drum of mercaptan leak onto the ground at a LNG storage facility. The county fire dispatchers were inundated with calls for gas leaks, as was the gas utility.
    A little bit goes a long way.

  9. Hollins says:

    I just finished a 3wk job at the laplace dupont Refinery on a colume and me and a coworker made a break of a line on the structer of a colume and we were given the wrong instructions by supervision to break those lines but we were told that the first break of those lines Have to be under fresh air we could have very well been seriously injured are died on the initial break of the lines when i heard the story it send chills through my body I am deeply sadend about whats gone on with dupont

  10. Nile says:

    These days I work in an office and the only chemical hazard I deal with is the toner cartridge in the printers and the ever-present risk of hot coffee spillages.
    But yeah, I know where the fire escapes are. And every couple of days, I walk up a floor or two to IT, or down to the staff canteen, just because I can …right?
    Most people would take several seconds of ‘Duh, Wut?’ if you told them to point to a fire exit, or a fire extinguisher. Including, from my own direct observation, most people in a lab or workshop with real hazards.
    Quite possibly yours: when’s the last time the newbie in your lab was told ‘Point to the fire exit’ ?
    Graduate trainees and interns get asked that, in a *bank*, in their first month. Anyone new and clueless-looking is fair game.
    Me, I had an engineering job that came with some memorable safety training on Working In Confined Spaces. Note the capitalisation, see if you can find the video on YouTube; the one which documents those instances when the first person to enter the space with the sniffer and the ELISA breathing gear was the only person to walk out, and he’s outnumbered by the ‘rescuers’ who went in and died there.
    This is a recurring pattern in confined-space fatalities.
    I did the live training, with the breathing kit: not the video class. If anyone reading this works in a lab with for-real hazardous gases – or a decent-sized Dewar of liquid nitrogen – has anyone in your building *at all* done that training?
    Also: for all those who have something to say about noticing the smell of methyl mercaptan, dig out out your high school notes on Hydrogen Sulphide: above a certain concentration, it knocks out your sense of smell, and it’s as toxic as hydrogen cyanide. This, too, is a common pattern.

  11. ed says:

    aren’t texas chemical safety laws famously lax? isnt that why these plants are there?

  12. Pedro Arrechea says:

    @11–
    the plants are there because that is where the raw materials (natural gas-oil) and infrastructure (ports, gas pipeline, oil platform, refineries) are located

  13. JBK says:

    As a retired HazMat/Chemist tech I agree with the point made above. Non first responder employees must have it hammered into their head that their duty is to guard the perimeter and prevent people from entering the danger area.
    Donning a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) doesn’t take that much longer than putting on a face mask. These SCBA should be located near any place in a plant that has the potential to create a life threatening atmosphere. The gear is placed in a storage cabinet in a ready to wear condition. It takes maybe 30 seconds to get one on.
    The first thought most of us have is that there must have been a training failure for something like this to happen. But the urge to rescue a fellow worker is terribly strong and hard to resist.

  14. jr says:

    I’m not a dupont cheerleader. But, I visit their sites in Wilmington and Newark DE regularly. Those who criticize their “safety culture” relative to other industrial/pharma companies are flat wrong. Pharma labs are romper rooms in comparison.

  15. gippgig says:

    I think the biggest problem is human nature – as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. This applies just as much, in fact more so, at home than in a lab/plant (altho the hazards aren’t as great).
    Try to remind yourself that every time you drive a car you are operating heavy machinery. Every time you fill your gas tank you are handling a hazardous chemical. Every time you plug something into a wall outlet you are dealing with a dangerous voltage.
    Check your smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detector, & fire extinguishers. Put together an emergency supply kit.
    Whenever you enter a building note the location of exits. Always carry a flashlight (really handy in any case) and a compass.
    Finally, as mentioned above, try to constantly ask yourself what you would do in an emergency.

  16. navarro says:

    @11 & 12–
    raw materials and infrastructure there are in abundance but the safety laws in this, my state, are indeed notoriously lax. our current governor, rick perry has made those lax regulations a selling point in his trips around the country trying to draw industry here to texas.

  17. Pedro Arrechea says:

    I used to work in those chemical plants (Sabine River Works). We had a contractor who ended up being crushed by a heat exchanger during a shutdown- he ended up being 6 inches shoulder to shoulder. Industrial accidents are often not the consequence of “lax” regulations but a combination of factors of which I would argue that institutional culture is paramount. I used to to have to fill out OSHA PSM/MOC/TA paperwork until I was blue in the face. I don’t think filling out more forms is the answer.
    Chemical plant deaths due to asphyxiation is relatively common accident at chemical plants. Someone collapses, people are unaware of what has happened because the circumstances are highly unusual, they rush in, and then they themselves succumb.

  18. DSReilly says:

    from the newspaper article linked, “a production operator at DuPont’s chemical plant in La Porte, was nearing the end of his 12-hour shift early Saturday”
    from an old Howard Hughes HHMI safety video (called “Practicing Safe Science, I remember b/c I showed to undergraduate lab students many years ago”
    important to be aware that accidents are more likely to happen:
    -near the end of the work day
    -when you’re tired
    -when you’ve got a lot on your mind
    -when you’re doing something very routine’

  19. johnnyboy says:

    Am surprised no one has brought up last year’s chemical explosion at another Texas plant.
    From Wikipedia:
    “On April 22, 2014, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released the preliminary results of its investigation into the explosion. It blamed the disaster on company officials’ failure to take basic steps regarding safe storage of the chemicals in its stockpile, as well as inadequate federal, state and local regulations regarding the handling of hazardous materials”.
    I’d bet 50 bucks that when the dust settles on the Dupont explosion, the conclusions will be exactly the same – failure of safety culture at the plant, inadequate regulation poorly enforced. And then another explosion will occur. And then another. And the politicians will keep harping on Big Government, and the population will keep nodding in agreement.

  20. gippgig says:

    The answer undoubtedly varies widely, but in general how much knowledge of chemistry to the workers at chemical plants have? Are they just average people cluelessly doing what the instruction manual says or do they understand what they are doing and why?
    I’ve mentioned this before, but why aren’t insurance companies regulating chemical plants etc.? Do they just assume government will do the job?

  21. David Borhani says:

    @13, @17: I agree.
    @14, read my letter (Will they ever learn?), and the original C&EN article on which I commented (Fatal phosgene leak).
    DuPont may be better than other companies, but I think that’s not good enough (too low a bar). The bizarre thing to me, and hence my letter to C&EN, is the apparently uncoordinated and ad hoc nature of their safety regulations and procedures, which differ, for example, from one plant to another even though they might be using the same hazardous material at large scale.
    Sad, both for these four workers and their families but also for DuPont, which in my early days was the go-to place, the shining star of the chemical industry (much like Bell Labs in telecommunication).

  22. gippgig says:

    Oops, that should be …how much knowledge of chemistry Do the workers…

  23. Broadwing says:

    @17
    Very common indeed. There was even an accident that killed three workers on a space shuttle once. Nitrogen purged environment.

  24. D. C. Sessions says:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but why aren’t insurance companies regulating chemical plants etc.?

    They do — but the cash cost of killing employees is amazingly low, so it’s really not a big factor in premiums. ISTR the statutory cap on damages for negligent death is something like $5000
    I would love to be wrong about that.

  25. OneNeoEno says:

    Its worth noting that, even at a chemical plant, its likely that people’s first reaction to someone collapsing is going to be “heart attack, start CPR!”. Accidents are rare enough and heart attacks common enough that they’ll probably be right, too.

  26. Slurpy says:

    @20 gippgig
    Without details, I’m only guessing, but in my industrial experience with three major companies, “production operators” are lucky to have their GEDs, and are typically taught just enough to operate the equipment and not drink what they’re making.

  27. Weeped Wolf says:

    The last time we had the fire alarms go off here, I didn’t even notice until the secretary poked her head in my door and chewed me out. Fortunately it was only a drill.
    But why I didn’t notice is that we have had so much repair work on the fire alarms lately, with emails sent out telling us to ignore the alarms, that it had become a subconscious habit of mind to ignore them.
    There are lessons here.

  28. Anonymous says:

    @27
    Similar situations have happened to me due to working in places with lots of malfunctioning or false alarms. I always try to bring up that the alarm fatigue resulting from such situations may be more dangerous than shutting-off the alarms during the times they are malfunctioning.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alarm_fatigue

  29. rabidk says:

    @7: Rick Rescorla is a great example of the value of preparedness. Thanks for bringing up his story.
    For anyone who is interested in understanding the many ways people can respond to disaster, I highly recommend checking out Amanda Ripley’s book ‘The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–and Why’. Ripley does a captivating job of breaking down how different people react to real-life disasters and identifies several common response archetypes and the psychology behind them.
    One of the key takeaways is that no-one truly knows how they will respond to the unexpected until it happens. The most confident become lost and the meek become leaders. There is a strong tendency to enter a state of cognitive lock (freeze) or revert to mundane actions (collecting personal items, organizing papers on your desk) as the brain struggles to process new information. To counter this, she emphasizes that that the simple act of envisioning a course of action before the crisis (walking to the emergency exit, taking a fire extinguisher off the wall and pulling the pin, etc…) can be of enormous help as it provides a pre-existing fallback plan for the overstimulated brain.
    This book convinced me of the value of paying attention to the pre-flight safety briefing–not because it contains new information, but because it establishes patterns that can save your life when seconds count.

  30. Richard H says:

    “a production operator at DuPont’s chemical plant in La Porte, was nearing the end of his 12-hour shift early Saturday”
    You have people working _12-hour_ shifts, and then wonder why “freak accidents” happen?

  31. Inigo Montoya says:

    @30,
    “Freak accident”. They keep using that phrase. I don’t think that phrase means what they think it means.

  32. Hank Scorpio says:

    While I agree wholeheartedly with the overall message here, saying that there should be more than one type of fire extinguisher is not necessarily correct. For many locations, having only an ABC extinguisher is perfectly appropriate and safe.

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