NEW YORK (Reuters) - A host of safety oversights by chemical maker DuPont Co last year culminated in the accidental release of three deadly chemicals and a worker’s death, the U.S. government said on Thursday.
The Chemical Safety Board (CSB), a federal agency that investigates industrial accidents, said that DuPont used old chemical tubes, relied too much on automated software and failed to inform emergency crews promptly about a phosgene leak that killed 58-year-old Carl Fish.
Phosgene has a green hue and smells like freshly cut grass. It is currently used to make herbicide and was also used in chemical warfare during World War One.
Fish’s death came a day after two other chemical leaks at the same DuPont facility.
Both methyl chloride, which can be used to make rubber, and oleum, a type of sulfuric acid, were accidentally released into the atmosphere. No injuries were reported in those two cases.
“We at the Chemical Safety Board were quite surprised and alarmed to learn that DuPont had not one, but three preventable accidents that occurred over a 33-hour period,” Rafael Moure-Eraso, head of the CSB, told reporters on a conference call.
DuPont said it completed an internal investigation and is cooperating with the CSB.
On January 23, 2010, a tube connected to a phosgene tank at DuPont’s Belle, West Virginia, plant frayed, spraying the chemical on Fish’s chest.
Fish, a 32-year DuPont veteran, was taken to the hospital where he died a few hours later.
For a CSB video animation on the incident, click on: link.reuters.com/guq52s
“The CSB determined there were safer ways DuPont could have run its phosgene operation,” John Bresland, a CSB board member, said during the conference call.
In its 173-page report, the CSB found that DuPont did not give “timely and detailed” information to emergency crews about the phosgene leak.
The company relied on a security guard to call 911 and did not tell crew members a phosgene leak had occurred until they arrived at the plant, the CSB said.
When 911 officials tried to call DuPont en route for more information, they found the line busy, the report said.
While waiting for crews to arrive, Fish washed his face and hands, but was not put into a safety shower, which was required as part of the company’s emergency procedures, the report said.
The report also criticized DuPont’s use of Teflon in the phosgene tube that frayed. Teflon is one of DuPont’s signature products; it is most commonly used to make nonstick cookware.
Teflon was paired to make the tube with stainless steel, which corrodes in the presence of chlorides found in phosgene. Teflon itself can be permeated by phosgene.
The report faulted DuPont for relying solely on SAP automated software to remind workers to change tubes and not having some type of redundant backup.
The tubes are supposed to be replaced once a month, but the tube that eventually ruptured had not been changed in seven months, the CSB said.
“We found the phosgene transfer hose was susceptible to failure,” Bresland said. “We learned another phosgene hose had failed in a similar manner, but that failure was not investigated by DuPont.”
DuPont no longer uses or stores phosgene at the Belle plant, a spokesman said.
“We will continue to cooperate with the CSB, including reviewing the draft report and providing input to the CSB,” DuPont said in a statement to Reuters.
A contract worker at a DuPont plant in Tonawanda, New York, was killed last fall after a chemical storage tank exploded during a welding operation.
The CSB is currently investigating that incident.
Shares of Delaware-based DuPont were up 1.1 percent at $55.81 in Thursday afternoon trading.
Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Derek Caney, Dave Zimmerman and Matthew Lewis