Texas Fertilizer Explosion, Boston Marathon Bombing, Ricin Scare: Lessons in Chemical Safety, the Value of a Quick Response, and Incident Prevention

Three major events, each likely to make many year-end lists of the top news headlines of the year, were compressed into a single extraordinary week this April. Fallout from the bombing of the Boston Marathon, the mailing of ricin lased letters to the President and other officials, and an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant will take a lot of time to sort out. It would be easy to look at any one of the events and shake one’s head and say, “That’s just crazy.” Or, we can take a moment to look at each event and try to wring from it a few hard-earned lessons. For workplace safety professionals especially, the potential lessons that can be drawn from the way each event unfolded are almost innumerable. At the very least, chemical manufacturers, employers and safety professionals should have come away from the week’s events thinking about the following:

  1. If you’ve got chemicals, you’ve got responsibilities
  2. Quick, effective response to incidents saves lives
  3. Prevention is the best medicine
  4. Preparing for the worst case scenario is the new normal



Chemical Tragedy Waiting to Happen

We’ll begin with the explosion of the Texas fertilizer plant. On Wednesday night, April 17, 2013 – A massive explosion rocked the West Fertilizer Plant in West, Texas. Video of the explosion was caught on a cell phone and can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/8pWhjAAellI.

The blast killed 14 people, including at least 11 first responders, and injured over 200 people according to a Fox News report. In addition to injuries and fatalities, dozens and dozens of homes and buildings were destroyed, irreparably changing the lives of an entire town. Officials say they still don’t know what caused the blast; however, other disturbing news related to the plant’s storage and reporting of chemicals has surfaced. At this point, we have more questions than answers, and it’s likely that our understanding of what’s been reported will change; yet, there is value in examining even these early reports since perception is tantamount to reality in today’s digital age. Various news outlets are reporting that the Texas plant has had over the last few years a series of regulatory miscues. According to an article on Huffington Post, the last OSHA inspection at the plant was in 1985, and at that time, the plant was fined for a serious violation for the storage of anhydrous ammonia, as well as citations for respiratory protections An article from Reuters, as posted on CNBC.com, states the plant had 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that should have triggered reporting to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The article states that facilities with 400 lbs. or more of ammonium nitrate must self-report to the DHS. The West Fertilizer Plant had 270 tons on hand last year. Furthermore, in an article on NBC’s OpenChannel, it is reported that in a 2011 risk management plan filed with the EPA, the owner of the plant said its anhydrous ammonia did not pose a threat and that the worse-case would be a release of the storage tanks over about 10 minutes. The same article states that the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) fined the plant $10,000 for not properly labeling tanks and for issues around transportation of anhydrous ammonia. In 2006, the EPA fined the plant for not filing a risk management plan, failing to document hazards, and was found by the State Department of Environmental Quality to be operating without permits for its 12,000-gallon tanks of anhydrous ammonia. Since the blast, a number of articles, like this one, have surfaced questioning the zoning rules that allow such plants to be located so closely to schools, homes and other residential buildings.

Questions Facilities with Chemicals Should be Asking

  • What chemicals do we have?
  • Have we crossed check those chemicals against the appropriate regulatory lists?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen in relation to those chemicals?
  • Are we prepared for that worst-case scenario?
  • Do we have comprehensive plans in place to deal with the safe handling, storage, transportation, and disposal of these chemicals?
  • Are our employees trained as well as they should be?
  • Do we know all of the regulatory agencies we need to report to?
  • Do local and state emergency response agencies know the types and amounts of chemicals in use?
  • Have we properly labeled everything, do we have a safety data sheet for all the chemicals?
  • Are there appropriate hazard controls in place?

Any facility with hazardous chemicals, especially those that manufacturer or process fertilizer or otherwise use large quantities of ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia should be prepared for additional scrutiny in the aftermath of West, Texas. As often happens, a bright spotlight is shining on such facilities and a number of NGO’s and publications are calling for action to ensure such plants are inspected and up-to-date on compliance. Additionally, every chemical manufacturer, distributor and user of chemicals needs to consider who is at risk. As we have seen in recent years, the population at risk extends well beyond the walls of the facility and includes emergency responders and the surrounding community. Based on that relationship, such businesses should expect greater scrutiny and involvement from the public as people strive to take greater control over the safety of their communities. To aid in that process, the Department of Labor has been working in recent years to make information more transparent and readily accessible to regular citizens via websites that track and report everything from workplace safety violations to air quality, including the following:

Regulatory Agencies Also Under Fire

Also coming under fire from the fallout of the explosion are the federal, state, county, and local agencies that are tasked with regulating plants like West Fertilizer, including the EPA, OSHA, DOT, PHMSA, and DHS. Some say the problem is not with the owners and managers of facilities, but with the lack of enforcement by the agencies overseeing compliance. In fact, there have been a number of articles recently from papers like the New York Times questioning the job OSHA and the EPA have done regulating chemical hazards, and a recent piece on NPR took OSHA to task for its handling of Grain Bin Deaths. Many groups want the EPA, OSHA and others to step up their inspections, to levy larger penalties, and to have better follow through on ensuring unsafe conditions are corrected. The agencies respond to such criticism by saying they are doing the best they can with the tools and resources available to them. Enforcement requires fines and penalties with teeth that have the ability to change behavior. OSHA for instance has complained for years that its penalties on a range of standards do not do enough to change behavior; and that when fines are levied they are too often reduced in subsequent arbitration. Here is a link to the OSHA penalty information page, where you can see the biggest penalty OSHA can issue for a high-severity penalty is $7,000. Of course, OSHA will often add fines on top of fines, yet, compared to the profits made by many of the violators, the fines even in the tens or hundreds of thousands rarely amount to much on the balance sheet of a million or billion dollar industry. Looking at recent budgets, we can also see the amount of money available to OSHA and other agencies to perform inspections has not grown much and in some recent cases has even been reduced. Bloomberg BNA reported just last week that OSHA plans on conducting over 2,000 fewer inspections in 2014 than it has in previous years to account for budget realities. At the same time that OSHA and EPA are being criticized for the lack of inspections and oversight it is being hit hard for the enforcement it does levy. Labeled job killers, critics say the problem with the agency is that there are in fact too many regulations. The charge is that businesses don’t know how to comply with the compounding and overlapping agency jurisdictions. Another criticism is that instead of spending so much time doing inspections and aggressively pursuing violators, OSHA and others should allocate more resources towards helping companies comply via programs like the Voluntary Protections Programs (VPP), that incentivize employers to implement effective safety and health management programs. With the events of last week, the fight over enforcement is likely to intensify with both sides holding up subsequent information as proof that the system is broken, for exactly the opposite reasons.

Chemical Safety Should Be Getting Easier

One of the more frustrating elements of the West, Texas explosion and other recent chemical related accidents in the United States is that they are occurring at a time when chemical management should be getting easier. More and better resources are available than ever before from companies like MSDSonline, which make it easy to manage chemicals and safety data sheets, track chemicals (quantities and location) across facilities, and cross-reference chemicals down to the ingredient against a host of regulatory lists like DHS Chemicals of Interest, EPA Clean Air Act List of Hazardous Air Pollutants, and the CERCLA priority List of Hazardous Substances. Cloud-computing and other technological advances have greatly reduced the cost of a good chemical management solution while at the same time broadening the range of compliance issues that can be addressed quickly and efficiently via an electronic solution. The times of changed. It makes little sense to manage chemical hazards the same way we did even a decade ago. The bottom line is that under current laws companies using hazardous chemicals have responsibilities - including the responsibility of knowing what regulatory lists with which they need to comply. And they must take actions to ensure the safety of their employees and surrounding community. It's not about a local, state or federal agency banging on their door getting them to comply - it is something they should be doing because it is the law and the right thing to do.



A Stitch in Time Saves Lives

It’s hard to look at a violent crime such as unfolded in Boston last week at the end of its famed marathon and find something of value to take forward. Then again, as the Mr. Rogers quote which made the rounds on Facebook following the bomb blasts, extorts, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” In this case, the helpers were perfectly positioned to respond to the horrific events. The bombings took place at the finish line of the marathon and just a few yards from a medical tent set up to assist runners in need. This tent, according to ABC News, and the medical professionals staffing it, turned into a mass casualty center triaging victims of the blast in front of transportation to hospitals. By many reports, it was the quick, steady action of these folks as well other first responders on the scene, and other brave spectators and participants, who jumped in to help to save the lives of many after the blast. Dr. Michael Gibson, interviewed by NPR, said he was “amazingly impressed with how stable the patients were as they arrived. I mean, the team in the field did a great job. I think having the injury tent right at the finish line may have saved innumerable lives.” Employers and safety professionals should take this as a call-to-arms for getting their own emergency and disaster preparedness plans in place. OSHA has a number of requirements related to emergencies as part of General OSH standard, and additional information is available from the CDC.

The New Normal

It would be easy to dismiss the events in Boston, or even Texas, as extreme cases, for which the need to prepare for a catastrophe on that scale is unnecessary. At the very least, we have compelling evidence from the devastations of hurricanes, the events of 9/11 and Boston, and workplace accidents like West, Texas, that the unthinkable can and does happen; and businesses have to be ready. Unfortunately, the unthinkable has become the new normal. Again, employers and safety professionals would do well to think about their facilities and ask themselves:

  • What types of emergencies could happen here (weather, natural events, terrorism, accidents)?
  • Who is in charge of preparing for emergencies in our company?
  • How well prepared are we in the case of such an emergency?
  • Who is at risk? How will we communicate to them in time of crisis?
  • What would the timing of the response be from local emergency responders?
  • Do we have all of the necessary resources and controls in place?
  • What kind of recovery plan is in place?



The New ‘Extreme’ Normal is Business as Usual for Federal Mail

Ricin, a deadly poison derived from castor beans, was in the news this week after letters containing the substance were sent via the U.S. Postal Service to President Obama and Senator Roger Wicker, and Mississippi Judge Sadie Holland. More information on ricin is available from the CDC has a Ricin Fact Sheet Page and a Ricin Q&A. This ricin incident was just the latest in a series of attacks on politicians via the mail. Back in 2001, anthrax was sent to two Senators, killing five people and sickening many others. Then in 2004, ricin set off a congressional scare when a contaminated letter was received in the Senate mail room for Senator Bill Frist. Because of these earlier attacks, changes were made to the handling of parcels for members of Congress and the President. It was these added protections and their efficacy that has relegated the otherwise sensational ricin news story to the B-side of the week’s news. Controls were put into place to account for worst case scenarios and they worked as designed, preventing what could have otherwise been the leading news story of the week. An article on the most recent ricin attack from the Washington Post quotes a GOA report detailing the changes made to the processing of mail. The article says mail sent to Federal Addresses is handled in a special facility where it is “heated to temperatures often exceeding 150 degrees. Large containers holding first-class mail and packages are scanned by a high-energy electron beam or X-rays to kill potentially harmful biological agents, including anthrax.” A safety data sheet for anthrax can be accessed via MSDSonline's free safety data sheet index.

Prevention is the Best Cure

In the above case, the new normal is that any piece of Federal mail could be a potential threat and is handled accordingly. On the one hand, one could say the measures the Unites States Postal Service is taking are over the top. On the other hand, the Washington Post article states that the USPS spends $12 M on irradiation of mail – which is in all likelihood a small price to pay relative the costs associated with the deaths of federal employees, especially those holding public office. The benefits of being proactive appear to outweigh the costs. The costs/benefits of prevention are central to OSHA Director Dr. David Michaels’s desire to get Injury and Illness Prevention Programs Standard, or I2P2, legislation passed. Dr. Michaels has stated repeatedly in the last year that the creation of an I2P2 Standard is his agency’s top priority. Such programs, Dr. Michaels argues could substantially reduce the number and severity of workplace injuries and illnesses. Under such a standard, employers would be required to think proactively about what could go wrong in the workplace, leading to injuries, and then to take steps to preempt it. Many states and individual companies have already adopted similar strategies to great benefit. A key piece of many preventive programs is incident management, and more specifically, the tracking, reporting and fixing of near miss incidents. In near miss tracking, the accident or injury is avoided, yet conditions under which the accident nearly happened are recorded and dealt with as necessary. It switches the mindset of a company from defense to offense. Instead of asking a question like “What do we have to do comply?” The question becomes instead, “How can we best keep employees safe and accidents from happening in the first place?” Imagine if such a mindset was at work in West, Texas prior to the explosion. There would be no need to focus on enforcement from the EPA and OSHA. The owner of the fertilizer plant and safety personnel would have been actively working to improve conditions and would have exceeded the minimum safety requirements for a plant of that size and type. Looking at the events in Boston, and how the rapid response of so many trained emergency responders save lives, shows the benefits of proper planning and excellent execution. Questions employers and safety professionals should be asking about prevention include:

  • Are we doing enough to prevent workplace incidents from happening in the first place?
  • Are we tracking near-misses?
  • Are our employees engaged in an ongoing dialogue about workplace hazards?
  • When employees share concerns are we addressing/fixing them quickly enough?
  • How much money could we save on insurance, workers comp, days lost, if we reduced injuries and illnesses in the workplace?



The national psyche took a beating last week, and yet, in typical American fashion, the country responded with its accustomed poise, tenacity and optimism. However, if we are going to honor the loss of life, loss of home or just the feeling of a loss of security – then we have to do more than pat each other on the back. We have to take these hard lessons and use them to make things better in the future. On some level, we have to understand that the reaction we as a country had to the bombings in Boston (a call-to-arms) is the same kind of reaction we should have to long-standing workplace hazards, like those that existed in West, Texas before the explosion. (Right now in this country, by some estimates, there are thousands of facilities in similar or worse condition.) Even better, if we can put that kind of focus, energy, and activism into preventing workplace hazards, then we could really make things better for millions of people and communities large and small. In the end, it’s not really about what agencies like OSHA, the EPA, FBI or CIA can do to keep us safe. It’s always been up to us, the employers, the safety professionals, the workers, and the community to make a difference. If we do what we can and should do, then regulatory agencies become almost an afterthought. Everything discussed above is of course easy to write and hard to do – but those of us in a position to make a difference owe it to ourselves and others to try.