I’ve been following the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward’s coverage of the death of Carl “Danny” Fish, 58 from exposure to phosgene on Jan 24 while working at the DuPont Corp’s plant in Belle, WV.  (Mr. Fish’s photo and obituary)  Ward’s reporting started with DuPont downplaying the incident, then a confirmation by the company of the worker’s  death (here), followed by the US Chemical Safety Board’s (CSB) decision to investigate the incident (here), and DuPont’s “safety pause” at the plant (here).   Within a day, it was a preliminary report from CSB investigators that the phosgene-containing hose was worn and frayed (here), and then the US EPA’s announcement that they are launching an investigation of the recent chemical releases (here).   

Based on Ward’s reporting and the brief statement from the CSB, there’s been a history of near misses at the Belle plant, including releases of chloromethane, phosphoric acid, and sulphur trioxide.  In Ward’s “OSHA and DuPont: Belle plant seldom inspected,” he noted it was the first time in nearly five years that federal safety inspectors* had set foot in the plant.  Prior to that, OSHA visited the plant in 1995.  OSHA provided an official response to Ward, explaining:

“They have not been inspected since 2005 because we have not received a formal complaint or referral, there have been no fatalities and their injury and illness rate is low enough so that they are not on our Site Specific Targeting list.”

That response is unsatisfying.

Not because I expect OSHA to be able to inspect every workplace regularly—-it’s never been given the funds to do so—but because there were warning signs of trouble at this plant and it seems that nobody took responsibility to look into them.   I realize that OSHA, CSB, EPA and WV State agencies are not responsible for DuPont’s H&S program.  That’s DuPont’s duty, period.  

But, when there are signs that a company may be shirking its H&S responsibility, with the lives of workers and the community at risk, we need a nimble regulatory apparatus ready to check it out.    

When OSHA responds with

“there have been no fatalities and their injury and illness rate is low enough so that they are not on our Site Specific Targeting (SST) list,”

I wonder whether we should be relying so heavily on these crude, blunt metrics to focus OSHA’s attention.  I say crude and blunt because the current SST list is based on tabulated counts of days-away-from-work injury cases provided by a small selection employers.  The current OSHA SST list uses data from 2007—-not last quarter, not last year, but three years ago.   As noted in the OSHA statement, the DuPont plant in Belle, WV was not on the OSHA SST list because of their recordable incidence rate.  [Makes me wonder how many fatal injuries will occur this year among employers who are not on the OSHA SST list?   I suspect quite a few.]**

I also call the metric crude and blunt because in some work settings, unintentional chemical spills and flares, flash fires, pipe ruptures, etc. may not (thankfully) result in a lost-time injury, but they sure may indicate a process, maintenance or other problem.  

As Ken Ward outlines for us today, the CSB reports a litany of releases at the DuPont Belle plant over the last three years.   For all I know, the CSB’s information is based on data assembled from the rolling news feed of “chemical incidents” provided on the agency’s homepage.   If that’s the case, I wonder if the CSB recognized signs of trouble at the DuPont plant.  Should the Board have alerted OSHA through a formal referral?  (See OSHA Field Ops Manual, Ch. 9)   Should the CSB be helping monitor such incidents for federal OSHA or the State Plans?   Could such information serve as another tool to direct OSHA’s attention? 

As far as I’ve been able to discern there is no labor union at the Belle plant, meaning the workers may have been much less likely to file an OSHA complaint.  Were there others in the community who knew (know) of safety trouble at the plant who could have alerted OSHA?   Is there a belief that OSHA wouldn’t have done anything even if they received information about these chemical releases?  

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that phosgene is one heck of a dangerous compound: it’s immediately dangerous to life and health at the scant airborne concentration of 2.o parts per million.  The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) website describes phosgene as the most dangerous choking agent used as a chemical weapon

“…it accounted for 80% of all chemical fatalities during World War I.”

At the DuPont Belle plant….phosgene was running through a hose…a hose that the CSB investigators told the Gazette’s Ken Ward was damaged badly enough that they could see its Teflon lining through a small hole.  

…Phosgene: Immediately dangerous to life and health at 2.0 ppm.

….Phosgene running through a hose with a hole in it.   A hose with a hole in it. 

It took the death of Carl Daniel Fish, 58, to get the attention of our federal agencies.  By the time the CSB’s and OSHA’s investigations are completed, I bet we hear about more maintenance lapses and process shortcut at the DuPont Belle plant.   I’ve no doubt we’ll learn that the warning signs were there, but our radar screens were not turned on to them.  Surely we can devise some ways to focus attention on the warning signs, and not be bound to a system that only can react after people’s lives are needlessly lost.

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*Note to Ken Ward: In official OSHA parlance, they are not called inspectors, but compliance S&H officers (CSHOs).  That tells us something doesn’t it? 

**As I’ve written before, the incident counts used to calculate the days-away and restricted-time (DART) rates consider a death-incident exactly the same as a restricted duty incident.   Employer X had a worker with a sprained ankle, that equals 1 incident.  Employer Y had a worker fatally exposed to phosgene gas, that equals 1 incident.   If they both have about the same number of full-time employees, there DART rate will be exactly the same.  As I say, a pretty crude and blunt way to focus OSHA’s attention.