In late May in Gallatin, TN, three workers were critically burned in a fire at a chemical plant where a flash fire in January had already killed two workers--one of whom succumbed to his third-degree burns just one week before this latest fire.
This most recent accident injured five workers, and was the third incident this year at the Hoeganaes Corp. plant. The facility employs about 175 people making metal powders for automotive and industrial uses. The two previous accidents occurred after flammable dust accumulated in the air and combusted, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigated the flash fires and released the findings two weeks ago.
In a news release, Investigator-in-Charge Johnnie Banks criticized the company for knowing of the danger the dust posed and not adequately addressing it. When his team inspected the plant, it found 2- to 3-inch layers of dust on surfaces throughout the facility and dust was visible in the air, according to the release. Banks is leading the investigation of the latest accident to determine its cause.
Meanwhile, Hoeganaes issued a statement saying its investigation into the cause of the most recent accident "so far suggests no link to previous incidents that occurred at the plant earlier this year." Asked whether that meant the company did not believe metal dust was to blame for the fire this time, spokeswoman Marcey Wurst declined to elaborate.
Gallatin Assistant Fire Chief Tommy Dale said the most recent fire occurred in the furnace room of the plant, where 10 to 15 people work. He said it was different in nature than the fatal accident in January.
According to the CSB, the January 31 flash fire occurred as two maintenance mechanics on the overnight shift inspected a broken bucket elevator that was downstream of a furnace. When they restarted the elevator, the movement lofted combustible iron dust into the air. The dust ignited and flames engulfed the workers.
The second accident occurred on March 29 when a plant engineer was replacing igniters on a furnace and inadvertently dislodged combustible iron dust. The dust engulfed him and ignited in a fireball.
Banks said in the news release that the amount of metal dust at the factory "was of particular concern because metal dust flash fires present a greater burn injury threat than flammable gas or vapor flash fires. Metal dust fires have the potential to radiate more heat, and some metals burn at extremely high temperatures."
There was no question the company knew much of the dust was combustible, Banks found. Company documents showed that last year Hoeganaes submitted 23 dust samples from the Gallatin facility to an independent laboratory and 14 were found to be combustible.
Investigators also found that the company had documented multiple reports of flash fires during repairs on furnace belts at their facility in Cinnaminson, N.J., where Hoeganaes is headquartered. Someone was killed in a 1996 accident there and an accident in 2000 injured two others.
The Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration earlier this week issued $42,900 in citations to Hoeganaes after an investigation into the January and March accidents found 12 serious violations, spokesman Jeff Hentschel said. TOSHA officials went to the plant last week to open an investigation into the latest accident.
The Chemical Safety Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations. In 2006 the CSB recommended the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration develop a standard to address combustible dust explosions. In 2009, OSHA agreed and the agency is currently in the early stages of rulemaking.
The most recent blaze, which was reported to the fire department at 6:30 a.m., was described as an "industrial accident" caused by a gas cloud that ignited in a furnace room near the center of the building, he said. The workers had been repairing a small gas leak when the fire occurred.
This latest accident occurred just one day after the funeral of a man who died recently after suffering third-degree burns in a January flash fire at the industrial plant.
Said Mike Mattingly, Hoeganaes vice president of human resources: "The company is devastated; it's in mourning."
While three of their co-workers were in critical condition form the May fire, employees were seen last week gathered near a sign at the front of the plant that read, "Think: Do I have the skills, knowledge and correct tools to perform this task?" Unfortunately, this sign alone could not prevent these three accidents and the deaths they caused. But let this be a warning to others who work in industrial environments: Worker safety has to be the first priority.
Lastly, if you or someone you know has been injured at work and feels that the proper safety measures were not taken, please contact the law office of Kramer & Pollack LLP in Mineola, NY so they can investigate who is liable for any injury that occurred.