OSHA Fines Texas Fertilizer Plant for April 2013 Explosion

By Roy Maurer Oct 10, 2013

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has fined the company that owns the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, $118,300, for safety violations following the massive explosion in April 2013 which left 15 people dead and more than 100 injured.

The Adair Grain, Inc., parent of the West Fertilizer Co. was cited for 24 alleged workplace violations, including unsafely handling and storing two dangerous chemicals exposing its workers to fire and explosion hazards of ammonium nitrate, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., announced Oct. 10, 2013.

Boxer, the chairwoman of the Senate’s environment and public works committee, took on the duty of making the announcement because of OSHA’s inability to publicize the findings itself during the federal government’s ongoing partial shutdown.

Boxer said OSHA found that West Fertilizer Co had:

  • Failed to train and license its forklift operators.
  • Failed to pressure-test replacement hoses on chemical tanks.
  • Improper ventilation and drainage systems.
  • Improperly stored ammonium nitrate bins.
  • Inadequate relief valves.
  • Missing labels on storage tanks.

The company was also cited for not having a hazard-communication program, an emergency response plan or required fire extinguishers.

The OSHA investigation is not finished. Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the deadly fire that broke out at the end of the workday April 17.

The facility stored close to 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, which exploded and damaged hundreds of homes in West, a town between Austin and Dallas.

The company will have an opportunity to contest the citations and penalty.

Call for Reforms

Boxer said that news of the enforcement action should be publicized despite the government shutdown to serve as a wake-up call.

“People running these facilities need to learn from this. There is a lot of tragedy that can happen if you don’t handle these materials properly,” she said.

She also said that the fine was disproportionately small, considering the fatalities and destruction that occurred.

National Council for Occupational Safety and Health Executive Director Tom O’Connor agreed, saying that although the OSHA fine was significant, “when compared to the value of the lives of workers who perished in the explosion, it is paltry.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Act must be amended to allow the agency to impose a fine greater than $7,000 for a serious safety violation, he said. “The agency must be able to issue fines that will truly act as a deterrent to unsafe working conditions.”

On Aug. 1, 2013, President Barack Obama issued an executive order directing several agencies to expand their efforts to ensure chemical facilities are operating safely.

The president also directed federal agencies to develop proposals within 90 days for the safer handling and storage of ammonium nitrate.

“The Toxic Substances Control Act, which Congress is working to update, should require companies using toxic substances to look into whether there are less hazardous substitutes available and then to use them,” O’Connor said.

He would also like to see Congress grant the Chemical Safety Board, currently an advisory body, with the “enforcement ability necessary to protect workers from avoidable chemical catastrophes.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

Related Article:

Federal Agencies Issue Safety Advisory on Ammonium Nitrate, SHRM Online Safety & Security, September 2013

Obama Orders Safety Review of Chemical Plants, SHRM Online Safety & Security, August 2013

Related Article:

Panel Declares OSHA’s Inaction on Industrial Chemical Safety ‘Unacceptable’, SHRM Online Safety & Security, July 2013

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