“Defenseless” Workers Avert Catastrophe, OSHA Still Levels Heavy Fine

Earlier this week, OSHA announced an investigation had concluded that employees at a Connecticut freight shipping terminal were able to avert a potentially deadly explosion and fire during a chemical spill, despite a serious lack of training. OSHA found that the employees had not been provided with either adequate safety instruction on the material they were handling or adequate Personal Protective Equipment. Importantly, even though no employees were killed or injured, OSHA levied a serious fine of over $85,000.

The accident, which occurred last October, involved a flammable and explosive chemical spill occurring when a forklift was used to move a pallet of tetrahydrofuran from one truck to another, and a 55-gallon container of the chemical was punctured. Though untrained on the substance, the responding employees rushed to absorb the leaking chemical. Though they were ultimately successful in preventing a disaster, their efforts were hampered by an almost complete lack of readiness.

Tetrahydrofuran is a colorless liquid that easily mixes with water. It is used to make polyurethane fibers for textile fabrics, and as a solvent in laboratories. Uniquely dangerous, tetrahydrofuran can penetrate exposed skin and dissolve latex. It is highly flammable. According to the CDC, in addition to posing dangers to exposed skin, it can also target the respiratory system.

“These workers were essentially defenseless,” said Robert Kowalski, OSHA area director, in a related press release. “They did not know how to evaluate the hazards involved, what personal protective equipment to use and what steps to follow to contain the spill safely. Worse, no one present at the terminal did. These deficiencies in emergency response [. . .] put its employees at risk of death or serious injury.”

Specifically, OSHA maintained that the shipping company at fault:

  • Did not adequately evaluate or train on hazards associated with tetrahydrofuran
  • Failed to provide any adequate PPE to responding employees
  • Had no qualified person onsite to oversee the response

In addition to the shipping company, OSHA also faulted the terminal in which the accident occurred for failing to have an emergency action plan, and failing to include procedures for reporting emergency events.

Even though no one was injured, in its press release OSHA made clear this event qualified as a serious violation because “there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.”  The same carrier had been previously cited by OSHA in 2011 during the inspection of a terminal in Chicago.

Cases like this can — and should — cause us to look internally and consider what might happen if a similar incident occurred at one of our own facilities. Picture yourself in their shoes! How would you feel if your employees came this close to being seriously injured?  Not only from a compliance stance, but the need for employee safety at all times should drive a comprehensive training program to prevent dangerous exposure to hazardous chemicals.

MSDSonline’s catalog of on-demand workplace trainings offers nearly 100 regularly-updated and expert-reviewed courses on EHS issues vital to employees, including training on handling and transporting hazardous chemicals like tetrahydrofuran. Training modules such as “Material Handling & Storage Procedures,” “Forklift Safety,” and “Emergency and Disaster Preparedness” are directly salient to the accident in OSHA’s cited example.

For more information about MSDSonline’s suite of safety trainings related to the handling and transport of hazardous materials — or other topics — you can visit our workplace training course library here.