Who's working at your plant?

March 3, 2004
The backgrounds of intruders may be a mystery, but the backgrounds of people regularly on your site shouldn't be. How carefully does your company check the references of people at your plant?
How safe is your plant? Chances are, if you've undergone the "site vulnerability assessment" process, it's safer than ever. But maybe not.

After Sept. 11, 2001, many of us can't help but focus on terrorist threats. As real and frightening as these may be, other threats much closer to home also deserve attention: workplace violence, danger to staff from disgruntled employees or former employees, and trade secret theft.

When victims seek redress in court, a key issue is whether companies "took reasonable steps" to prevent the events from happening. Controlling plant access and vetting full-time and contract staff are two basic, but effective, preventive measures. Yet, it seems that some chemical companies may still be overlooking them.

Who, by now, hasn't heard about "60 Minutes'" November segment in which a reporter entered a plant simply by opening an unlocked gate. The reporter then walked around the facility, posing by storage tanks of dangerous materials, without being questioned or stopped -- and we thought these breaches were things of the past!

Security consultants, as part of their work with chemical company clients, often test vulnerabilities by trying to gain access to control rooms and other sensitive areas. All too often, they succeed.

The backgrounds of intruders may be a mystery, but the backgrounds of people regularly on your site shouldn't be. How carefully does your company check the references of people at your plant -- particularly contract workers who come and go, such as drivers and cleaners, and even security guards?

Last month, Robert Murray House, a contract security guard at a BASF plant in Freeport, Texas, was shot in the shoulder while on duty. He said he was shot by a man with a thick Middle-Eastern accent, whom he had caught photographing the plant.

The incident triggered immediate alarms. Was Al Qaeda finally taking its battle to the chemical industry's heartland? Had the guard stumbled upon some secret U.S. counterterrorism operation, as some pundits originally speculated?

It turns out that House failed the FBI's polygraph test. The case is still open, but his story may have been a desperate plea for attention -- for his 15 minutes of fame.

Two weeks later, House turned himself in to police, where he was charged with interrupting a woman's 911 call and threatening her on Jan. 17. He had no criminal record, so how was the company to know of any tendencies toward violence and his overall mental state? Perhaps a psychological profile and test of the sort that companies such as Caliper have developed for higher-level staff should be developed for security people -- particularly for armed guards -- whether they're staff or contract employees.

Also noteworthy was the January arrest of Houston chemical plant foreman Donald Johnson, who'd escaped from a California prison in 1967, where he had been serving a term for second-degree burglary. He'd established a new identity in Texas and had been "an ideal and dedicated employee for 21 years" with Pilot Chemical Co.

It's tempting to compare him with Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean, a rehabilitated criminal, doggedly pursued by a system that could, and, perhaps, should, go after much bigger fish. Nevertheless, the case makes a point for stronger background checks on the national level to ensure that someone's criminal record in Alaska will be detected should that person apply for a job in Hawaii.

Contract workers continue to be a security weak spot for many companies, consultants say. The need to keep a potential Mohammed Atta from applying for contract chemical trucking positions is obvious. But how about the cleaning people who roam around facilities after hours and potentially have access to everything? At least one major case of chemical trade secret theft involved a contract janitorial worker. The janitor or cleaning person is a favorite disguise for industrial spies. It's essential, consultants say, to check the backgrounds of and references for applicants to any job, as well as make contract hires sign nondisclosure agreements, and limit their access.

The most potent weapon in the battle for more secure chemical facilities is an educated and aware workforce that clearly understands security issues. Has your company communicated that message to every level of the organization? If not, it certainly should, without delay.

Agnes Shanley is editor in chief for Pharmaceutical Manufacturing magazine. E-mail her at [email protected]

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