What the West Texas Disaster Can Teach Us

Wednesday evening, April 17, 2013, there was a terrible explosion in the West Fertilizer Company’s fertilizer plant in Texas. The latest reports indicate as many as 14 people were killed and over 160 injured.

The plant was located right in the middle of the town of 2,700 people and the explosion caused a huge amount of physical destruction in addition to the human devastation.

The plant handled ammonia and ammonium nitrate for fertilizer use.

These are well-known, hazardous materials that can be, and are, handled safely by most companies. There is extensive process safety technology regarding the handling and use of these materials. The technology applying to these materials as with many chemicals is strong and effective.

There are two major dimensions to using, making and handling hazardous materials. One is the process safety side, which is well known and effective, and the other side relates to the way the people choose to work with these materials, and choose to use the technology. The best process safety in the world is of no use if people don’t apply themselves and use the process.

In 2006, according to the Dallas Morning News, the Company was fined $2,300 for failure to have a risk assessment. In one EPA report they said that they handled anhydrous ammonia assuring them that no one would get hurt in the event of a release.

While we do not know specifically what happened, my many years of experience in managing chemical plants, would suggest to me that these are indications that the people side of their systems failed in some way. These are hazardous materials that need to be handled with professionalism, dedication and attention to procedures.

The lesson to be learned here is to rethink your situations in your own factories, plants and businesses where you handle and use hazardous materials. Think about questions like:

  • Do you talk together and share safety information?
  • Do managers get out of their offices and into the operating area to talk with the people on the floor?
  • Is the level of trust high enough that employees will freely report safety concerns and near misses?
  • Des everyone work together to solve safety problems?
  • Are your Material Safety Data Sheets and Safety manuals up to date and used?
  • Are employees properly trained and is the training schedule maintained?
  • Do you have high housekeeping standards and are your facilities properly maintained?
  • Do your employees have the resources they need to work safely?
  • Are you cutting corners to speed up the operation?
  • Do people have the proper personal protective equipment and do they use it?
  • Do you have a system of follow-up so that suggestions can be implemented quickly?
  • Are people able to shutdown a process on their own if it is unsafe?
  • Can people refuse to do a job if it can’t be done safely?

The questions can go on and on, this list barely hits the surface in what can be addressed when making a commitment to safety in the workplace and having a leadership team where safety is a priority. It takes discipline and hard work to stay on top of safety issues, but these are the kinds of responsibilities and burdens any organization working with and using hazardous materials must bear. If you use these materials, then you must accept the responsibility that comes along with the use. The people in your facility and those living around you depend on you to do your job well.

As a manager of plants handling and using hazardous materials, my mantra was “I don’t have a right to work at a place where it is okay for you to get hurt. Now let’s get the safety right and make money.

What is your safety mantra, your deep, authentic safety message for your people?

As we have seen from this indecent in Texas, the results can affect more than just your plant or business – entire towns can bear the brunt of accidents, explosions and the destruction that follows. My heart goes out to the town, the people, families and the plant workers. Situations like this are preventable…with Safety Leadership that comes from top down.

If you don’t have a safety mantra or message and follow the processes…I strongly recommend you get this in place and FOLLOW IT. Your business and the people that sustain it are depending on your leadership for their safety and the safety of many others.

About Richard N. Knowles

© Richard N. Knowles and Safety Sage Blog, 2014. You may use this article on your blog, website or in your newsletter or magazine, provided that full and clear credit is given to author, Richard N Knowles, Ph.D of Safety Excellence for Business with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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