I remember a hydrochloric acid accident at a Millennium Inorganic Chemicals plant about 18 years ago that injured four men; one later died. Although I wasn’t involved in the investigation, I suspect that safety practices, such as the wearing of appropriate safety gear and hazard communication, weren’t exactly textbook. Unfortunately, a similar situation occurred recently.
At 4 a.m. on Nov. 15, 2014, at DuPont’s plant in LaPorte, Texas, an inexperienced operator opened a valve to a vent line and was overcome with methyl mercaptan, a chemical used in the manufacture of a pesticide at the site. She called for help on the radio and five co-workers responded. Nobody was wearing the correct protective gear. Four people died and one was injured.
Some safety reports suggested that respirators would have saved lives. They would not have sufficed, though. Only full self-contained-breathing-apparatus gear could have handled the high concentrations of mercaptan present in the area.
Other reports pointed to the possibility of a design error in the piping or a valve failure. However, neither of these issues alter the need to adhere to a basic safety guideline: Never — I mean never — initiate a process change without wearing the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Don’t open a valve, turn on a motor or start a control sequence without donning the right gear.
A design error doesn’t matter as far as safety procedures. After all, they assume the worst! Checks during commissioning should have uncovered any design error — but lazy testing and pencil-whipped documentation can result in cross-connections, mislabeled valves and other problems. My point is that if you’re wearing the proper PPE you will live — you may sustain injuries, but you will survive.
Now, let’s explore the connection between the two accidents so many years apart. It’s very simple: poor leadership. Never mind the training. People don’t always follow safety rules in an emergency; they’re tired or panicked, and their attention often is divided. Good leadership enforces safety regulations, focuses efforts and inspires confidence — and was lacking at both of these sites.
In the military, young lieutenants are taught to lead from the front. That’s what I did when I was in the Air Force and in charge of the safety of operators testing extremely dangerous, novel chemicals used in solid rockets.
At companies with excellent safety records, like Hemlock Semiconductor, staff feel safe because engineers and foremen plan and execute process operations and work orders. A worker doesn’t have to look very far to find the leader who wrote the plan being executed; that person usually is standing right behind.
Leadership is not the ability to manage workers. Management is the organization of workers; managers think of workers as resources, hence the problems with departments like human resources (HR). Don’t be an extension of HR.
Instead, leadership requires a genuine concern for subordinates. You become a leader by earning the respect of workers by showing that you are looking after them and ensuring they see their families at the end of the shift. In an operating environment, good leadership involves: 1) a willingness to listen and act on operator complaints and suggestions; 2) patience to review all operating and maintenance instructions for problems such as batch additions in lbs and grams — apply your education and experience to read between the lines, i.e., to predict and avoid accidents and errors; 3) availability — visit off-shifts, talk to every operator face-to-face at least once a week, and show up when needed (I’ve camped out in a control room for almost a week before and been ready at a moment’s notice to help out when I could); and 4) fairness and honesty — tell your people what’s going on upstairs and protect them if necessary when they stray a little. Despite what some “managers” will tell you about getting ahead, taking care of your people is in the best interests of the company and your future.
DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. He recently won recognition for his Field Notes column from the ASBPE. Chemical Processing is proud to have him on board. You can e-mail him at email@example.com