Deadly Chem Plant Blast: Maintenance Delay

Friday, February 8, 2013 @ 03:02 PM gHale

Two people died because a Kentucky chemical company delayed crucial maintenance on a furnace that blew up, federal officials said. The explosion occurred after similar but smaller incidents ended up ignored at the Carbide Industries plant.

“This accident is literally a case study into the tragic, predictable consequences of running equipment to failure even when repeated safety incidents over many years warn of impending failure,” said U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) Chairman, Rafael Moure-Eraso.

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The independent CSB released its draft report Thursday on the blast and fire on March 21, 2011, in an industrial section of Louisville known as Rubbertown. Two workers died from burns and two others suffered injuries.

The explosion likely occurred when the large electric arc furnace became over-pressured after water leaked into it, the agency said.

The furnace, capable of heating its contents to about 3,800-degrees Fahrenheit, spewed molten calcium carbide, powdered debris and hot gases that blew through the double-pane reinforced glass window of the control room, the report said.

“When control room windows blew out during previous furnace incidents, the company merely reinforced them, rather than taking the safe course and moving the control room farther from the furnace and investigating why the smaller furnace over-pressure events were happening in the first place,” Moure-Eraso said.

He called it an example in which “abnormal events become acceptable in everyday operations.”

The plant produces calcium carbide, used in metal fabrication and construction.

Carbide Industries General Manager John Gant said the company has supported the board’s inquiry and has addressed the recommendations made as a result of the investigation.

“Additional safeguards and policies have been implemented that will further strengthen the safety and environmental performance at Carbide Industries,” Gant said.

The CSB’s lead investigator, Johnnie Banks, said there were 26 work orders by the company to repair water leaks on the furnace cover in the five months leading up to the explosion. The company continued to operate the furnace despite the hazard from those leaks, he said.

“We also found that the company could have prevented this incident had it voluntarily applied elements of a process safety management program, such has hazard analysis, incident investigation and mechanical integrity,” he said.

Carbide had planned to replace the furnace cover in May 2011, two months after the explosion, the agency said.

The draft report includes recommendations aimed at preventing a repeat of such explosions.

Investigators found National Fire Protection Association industry codes governing the safe operation of such furnaces do not include specific requirements regarding safety devices, interlocks and safe distances between the furnaces and occupied work areas.

The draft report recommends the NFPA develop national standards requiring companies to provide adequate safety controls to prevent explosions, as well as inspection programs and other steps to ensure control rooms remain protected.

“While that is important, it’s clear that Carbide displayed a chronic lack of commitment to figuring out what was going wrong, ignoring all the warning signs, even as its workers were exposed to a potential massive explosion just a few feet away from their control room,” Moure-Eraso said.

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