Magazine article Occupational Hazards

An Action Plan for Chemical Safety

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

An Action Plan for Chemical Safety

Article excerpt

On Oct. 23, 1989, the largest plant disaster in OSHA history hit Phillips Petroleum's Houston Chemical Complex. it was also one of the biggest tragedies in the history of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union.

What happened was that a polyethylene reactor vented its contents to the atmosphere through an open reactor block valve. Four highly flammable gases were released, ignited by an unknown source leading to an explosion that killed 23 people and injured up to 270 people. Investigation of the explosion identified three factors responsible for the disaster: an inadequate maintenance lockout policy; the use of subcontractors to work on primary reactor systems; and an inherently flawed reactor design.

While the Phillips tragedy was enormous, its causes are not unique, and I believe that every chemical plant in the United States could suffer a similar fate if present policies are continued. The issue of chemical plant safety is a serious one: at stake is the very existence of the industry.

Let me just cite an example, one in which we are deeply involved. Because of numerous hydrogen fluoride (HF) releases at various plants across the country, and especially because of the one at Marathon Oil in Texas City, Tex., where 3,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes, there is a growing sentiment among a number of people in powerful positions that hydrogen fluoride use should be phased out and, where it is possible to use a substitute as in hydrogen fluoride alkylation units, sulfuric acid should be used as a replacement. There is at this time legislation pending with regard to such a phaseout.

OCAW is currently analyzing HF safety in the 33 alkylation units nationwide where our members work.

The problems with the industry are pervasive but preventable ones. Otherwise, we would all just have to fold our tents and steal away. I believe the industry can operate safely, but it's going to take some draconian measures to do so.

OCAW has drawn up an action plan that we feel will go a long way towards ensuring plant safety. Following are the elements of this plan: * Companies should make public all hazard and risk assessments prepared by the industry and its insurers. …

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