DuPont: Sulfur Dioxide Vapor Hit Workers

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 @ 03:10 PM gHale

Sulfur dioxide vapor caused four workers at the DuPont Belle, WV, plant to become ill two weeks ago, company officials said.

“We are close to completing our internal investigation of the incident,” DuPont said in a statement last Friday. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also is investigating.

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DuPont said based on the findings of its investigation, “we have a clearer picture of what happened.”

About 11:30 a.m. Sept. 26, “three DuPont mechanics who were conducting maintenance work in the Belle plant’s Dimethyl Sulfate (DMS) unit, which is currently shut down for scheduled maintenance, began to experience eye discomfort,” the company said. “Late that afternoon, one of the workers noticed his throat was irritated and getting hoarse.”

The plant’s medical staff evaluated the three. They sent one worker to a local hospital, where he spent four days. The two others went to the plant’s medical facility and ended up released. Later that evening, one worker went to a local hospital for evaluation and ended up released the same evening.

An additional worker — a contract employee — went to the plant’s medical facility Tuesday morning. “He was sent to the local hospital for further evaluation and spent two days in the hospital under observation as a precaution,” DuPont said.

“Our investigation concluded that during the maintenance work, kettle heel, which is waste residue from the process equipment, was discharged to the drain in the area,” DuPont said. “The mixing of the heel and water, which was being used to clean the area, resulted in a small vapor release that drifted toward the mechanics, who were approximately 70 feet away.

“Based on our investigation, we now believe that the vapor release was sulfur dioxide and that the quantity released was less than 2 pounds, well below the reportable quantity.

“We believe the release dissipated within the DMS area within a short period of time and did not travel beyond that area,” DuPont said. “We have received no additional reports of exposure outside the DMS area.

“We are in the process of reviewing our maintenance procedures and training and will make appropriate changes to prevent similar incidents from occurring again,” the company said. “We take this matter very seriously and are committed to operating our plant in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”

The Belle plant has been a hot spot for DuPont as over a year and a half ago there was a release of highly toxic phosgene gas that killed one worker.

What ensued after that January 23, 2010 incident and two more at the same facility within two days of each other, led the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to launch an investigation on just what went wrong.

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