On nitrous oxide tank explosions and whipped cream shortages
Dec21

On nitrous oxide tank explosions and whipped cream shortages

The canned whipped cream shortage caused by a fatal explosion at an Airgas facility in August has been all over the news for the last couple of weeks. Plant operator Jesse Graham Folmar, 32, was killed in the explosion. The explosion involved a nitrous oxide holding tank and two tankers, and the facility has been closed since. That has caused a shortage of the gas, which serves as the whipping agent in whipped cream dispensers. Atlantic reporter Sarah Zhang talked to U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board investigator Dan Tillema about the explosion. Although the CSB report is not out yet, here’s what Tillema said about it: [Tillema] now thinks the likely culprit is the pump used to get nitrous oxide into the tanker. (There is also a small chance it was stray static electricity, which is impossible to completely rule out.) Residual heat in the pump can heat up the nitrous oxide enough to make the gas decompose into nitrogen and oxygen. This reaction releases more heat, which in turn makes more gas decompose, and so on. Kaboom. Tillema’s investigation will be published early next year, along with recommendations to prevent such accidents in the future. Also: Tillema says he has gotten questions about the accident’s connection to the whipped cream shortage. But as someone who has lived and breathed this investigation for months, he can’t help but think of the man who died. “It’s hard for me to worry about the whipped cream knowing that Jesse’s family members and coworkers are thinking about a lot more than whipped cream this year,” he...

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Juries award damages, CSB releases report for fatal Williams Olefins explosion
Nov30

Juries award damages, CSB releases report for fatal Williams Olefins explosion

Costs are mounting for Williams Olefins following a 2013 fire at a plant in Geismar, La., that killed two workers—Zach Green, 29, and Scott Thrower, 47—and injured 167 others. In the past few months, juries have awarded eight injured workers a total of $26.9 million after attorneys “argued that Williams, key management figures and others had known for years that one of two reboilers used in the refinery process was isolated from pressure relief—which meant there was a risk of over-pressurization and explosion,” the Baton Rouge Advocate reported. A reboiler is a heat exchanger that supplies heat to a distillation column. Last month, the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board released its investigation findings. Reported Jeff Johnson for C&EN: The reboiler that failed was one of two in the system that provided heat to the propylene fractionator—a distillation column that separates propylene and propane. The second reboiler was a backup and had been off-line for 16 months. Plant officials assumed the backup reboiler was clean and available for use. When the operating reboiler appeared to have fouled, plant operators began to shift operations to the idle reboiler. The plant operators did not know that the standby reboiler contained hydrocarbons and its pressure relief system was not in proper order, CSB found. As the reboiler’s heat increased, the confined liquid hydrocarbons expanded, resulting in a quick and dramatic pressure rise within the vessel. The shell ruptured, causing a release, an expanding vapor explosion, and a fire. A series of process safety management program deficiencies over the 12 years before the accident allowed the reboiler to be unprotected from overpressure problems, according to CSB. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) also investigated the incident. The agency initially cited the company for six safety violations fined the company $99,000, but that was negotiated down to $36,000. The case remains open pending abatement of violations, according to the OSHA inspection database. Another inspection in the fall of 2013 resulted in one citation and a fine of $7,000. That case is closed. OSHA appears not to have inspected the facility since then. Williams Olefins is a subsidiary of the Williams...

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CSB approves final report on West Fertilizer explosion
Feb02

CSB approves final report on West Fertilizer explosion

The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) on Jan. 28 approved its final report on the 2013 ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, that killed fifteen people and injured hundreds of others. CSB found that key factors that led to the severity of the accident were: Poor hazard awareness Proximity of the facility to nearby homes and businesses Inadequate emergency planning Limited regulatory oversight Here’s CSB’s video about the incident: CSB issued a total of 19 recommendations relating to the explosion, to the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety & Health Administration, International Code Council (responsible for the International Fire Code), Federal Emergency Management Agency, Texas Commission on Fire Protection, State Firefighters’ and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, Texas A&M Engineering Extension Services, Texas Department of Insurance, West Volunteer Fire Department, and El Dorado Chemical...

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Fire from rainbow demo injures five students in Virginia
Nov02

Fire from rainbow demo injures five students in Virginia

On Friday, Oct. 30, five students and a teacher were burned in an incident involving the rainbow flame test demonstration at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va. From a student’s description of the incident given to Fox 5 DC: [The teacher] was demonstrating the experiment … with the different elements causing the fire to change color, and as the fire was dying down she added more alcohol Details are still sketchy, but as we’ve seen many times before, most likely what happened was that the methanol supply or its vapor caught fire, flashed back into the stock container, and blew out toward the students. Two of the Woodson students were airlifted to area hospitals; one was reported to be in critical condition on Friday. On Sunday, both were in fair condition, according to a MedStar Washington Hospital Center spokesperson. One of the students, Sonya Garvis, has serious burns to her arm and will need surgery in the coming week, NBC Washington reported. The other three students were taken to a hospital, treated, and released on Friday. The teacher was treated at the school. As long-time blog readers know, the American Chemical Society and U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board have both warned against using flammable solvents, such as methanol, with this demonstration. A safer alternative is to soak wooden sticks in salt solutions and then burn the sticks in a flame. The National Fire Protection Association last year updated its standard for laboratories using chemicals to include requirements for demonstrations. Monday, Nov. 2, afternoon update: One of the two hospitalized students was discharged. The Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent has ordered these actions: Immediate suspension of the use of any and all open flames in all FCPS science classroom until further notice Conduct a thorough review of FCPS science curriculum Review current guidance to FCPS science teachers to ensure all concepts are taught in the safest possible manner and setting Require science safety updates for all FCPS high school science teachers to commence immediately, and all FCPS science teachers will be required to complete by the end of the semester Local media coverage of the Woodson fire: WTOP: Fire at Woodson H.S. injures 6 (Oct. 30), Experts advocate changes after Woodson H.S. chemistry class accident (Nov. 1), 3 students return to school after Woodson chemistry fire (Nov. 4) WUSA: Student injured in Woodson HS fire needs surgery, ‘will recover’ (Oct. 31) Fox 5 DC: 5 W.T. Woodson HS students, teacher injured in chemistry lab fire (Oct. 31) NBC 4 Washington: Chemistry experiment sparked explosion in Va. high school that hurt students (Oct. 30), Woodson students back in...

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Chemical Safety Board releases information about DuPont fatal methyl mercaptan leak
Oct15

Chemical Safety Board releases information about DuPont fatal methyl mercaptan leak

At the end of last month (when I was consumed by finishing a cover story on another topic), the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board released its interim recommendations to DuPont regarding the company’s release of 24,000 pounds of methyl mercaptan last year. The incident killed four employees at DuPont’s La Porte, Tex., facility. CSB also released an animation of the incident: In June, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration classified DuPont as a “severe violator” for “demonstrated indifference towards creating a safe and healthy workplace by committing willful or repeated violations, and/or failing to abate known hazards,” OSHA...

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“Tales of Lab Safety” webinar
Sep17

“Tales of Lab Safety” webinar

The ACS Program-in-a-Box series is featuring lab safety at its upcoming webinar on Oct. 20 at 7:00 pm Eastern: “Tales of Lab Safety: How to Avoid Rookie Accidents.” The speakers are Mary Beth Mulcahy, of the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board, and me. Hosting should be easy–you arrange for space and gather an audience, while ACS provides the content, promotional materials, activities, and raffle prizes. You can register...

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