Fatal Chemicals Used in Tank Washing & Other Jobs

December 28, 2019. Pasadena, Texas.

It was a normal evening at the Quala Rail and Specialty tank washing facility in Pasadena, Texas. A worker was assigned to clean the tank of a tractor-trailer that had just arrived for washing. He entered the enclosed tank just after midnight—and never emerged.

A second worker entered soon after he realized the first had not returned. Neither were wearing the proper PPE to protect themselves from any potential hazards within the tank, which had been used to transport unknown chemicals.

Finally, a third worker wearing a gas mask went to check on them and found their bodies. The incident was reported between 1 and 2 a.m., and local police were called to the scene around 7.

Quala was fined $497,920 for their part in the workers’ deaths. The company describes itself as having the “largest network of tank cleaning services nationwide,” with approximately 125 locations focused solely on tank washing.

Cleaning transportation tanks is a necessary yet perilous task, involving the use of highly toxic and potentially explosive chemicals. Workers in this industry are regularly exposed to substances that can cause severe injuries or even death. In recent years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has ramped up inspections and investigations, particularly in high-risk states like Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico, in response to a troubling rise in fatalities and serious injuries.

What Chemicals Are Used in Tank Cleaning?

Transportation tanks are cleaned using a variety of substances, each serving a specific purpose. Alkalis are commonly used to eliminate grease, grime, dirt, and organic soils. These compounds include sodium hydroxide, which can be found in both liquid and solid forms, and potassium hydroxide, also available in liquid or solid forms. Other alkali compounds used in tank cleaning are sodium carbonate (soda ash), sodium chloride, salt cake, and sodium bicarbonate. These alkalis are not only industrial cleaning agents but are also found in everyday household products such as oven cleaners, baking soda, Drano, and toilet bowl cleaners.

After the application of alkalis to remove organic soils, acidic detergents are utilized to remove any remaining inorganic buildup. This two-step cleaning process ensures that tanks are thoroughly cleaned, eliminating both organic and inorganic contaminants. The use of these chemicals, while effective in cleaning, poses significant risks to workers due to their corrosive and toxic nature. Proper handling, safety equipment, and training are essential to mitigate these risks and protect the health and safety of those involved in the cleaning process.

Types of Injuries & Illnesses in Tank Cleaning

The injuries sustained by workers in the field of transportation tank cleaning can be devastating, encompassing a broad range of physical and respiratory issues that can have long-lasting effects.

Chemical Burns & Skin Necrosis

Alkalis, particularly sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide, are highly corrosive. Their effects intensify as pH levels rise, causing severe damage to human tissue. When these substances come into contact with skin, they can cause:

  • Chemical Burns: Symptoms include redness, pain, swelling, blistering, and deep tissue damage. These burns can be more severe than thermal burns due to the prolonged chemical reaction until the substance is neutralized.
  • Skin Necrosis: Prolonged exposure can lead to necrosis, where the affected skin tissue dies. This can result in severe scarring, loss of function, and the need for surgical interventions such as skin grafts.
  • Necrosis of the Esophagus: Ingestion or inhalation of these chemicals can cause severe damage to the mucous membranes and tissues of the esophagus, potentially leading to life-threatening conditions and requiring extensive medical treatment.

Fatal Chemical Inhalations

Exposure to toxic fumes from chemicals used in tank cleaning can cause immediate and long-term respiratory issues:

  • Acute Respiratory Distress: Immediate symptoms can include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.
  • Chronic Respiratory Conditions: Long-term exposure can lead to chronic bronchitis, asthma, and other persistent respiratory conditions.
  • Pulmonary Edema: Inhalation of certain chemicals can cause fluid accumulation in the lungs, leading to a potentially fatal condition known as pulmonary edema.
  • Fatal Inhalations: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fatal chemical inhalations in the workplace increased to 41 in 2017, a 20% increase from the prior year. Throughout a 6-year period, inhaling carbon monoxide led to the highest number of fatalities (116), followed by hydrogen sulfide with 46 deaths.

Explosions & Fire Hazards

Improper handling and storage of volatile chemicals can lead to explosions and fires, causing severe injuries and fatalities:

  • Burns: Both thermal and chemical burns can occur in the event of an explosion or fire, causing significant pain and requiring long-term medical treatment.
  • Trauma: The force of an explosion can cause blunt force trauma, leading to fractures, concussions, and other serious injuries.
  • Fatalities: Explosions and fires can be fatal, with victims often succumbing to severe burns, inhalation of toxic fumes, or the force of the blast.

Poisoning & Toxic Exposure

In addition to inhalation, workers can be exposed to toxic chemicals through skin contact or ingestion, leading to poisoning:

  • Acute Poisoning: Symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, and seizures. Immediate medical attention is often required to prevent long-term damage or death.
  • Chronic Toxicity: Long-term exposure to low levels of toxic chemicals can lead to chronic health conditions such as liver and kidney damage, neurological disorders, and cancer.

Eye Injuries

Chemical splashes can cause severe eye injuries:

  • Chemical Conjunctivitis: Irritation and inflammation of the conjunctiva, causing redness, pain, and discharge.
  • Corneal Burns: Damage to the cornea can result in vision loss and may require surgical intervention.
  • Blindness: Severe exposure can lead to permanent blindness, significantly impacting the worker's quality of life.

Musculoskeletal Injuries

The physical demands of tank cleaning, combined with the hazardous environment, can lead to musculoskeletal injuries:

  • Strains and Sprains: Overexertion and awkward postures can cause muscle and ligament injuries.
  • Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs): Repeated movements and prolonged physical activity can lead to RSIs, causing pain and functional limitations.

Uses of Hazardous Chemicals in Other Industries

The hazardous chemicals used in transportation tank cleaning are prevalent in various other industries and job roles, where workers are frequently exposed to similar risks, including chemical burns, inhalation hazards, explosions, and fires.

Chemical manufacturing plants are central to producing compounds like sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. These plants supply essential chemicals for numerous industrial processes but also pose significant risks to workers. The production environment involves high temperatures, pressures, and handling of volatile substances, which can lead to fires, explosions, chemical spills, and toxic inhalations.

Industrial cleaning encompasses a broad range of activities where workers use powerful chemicals to clean and maintain industrial equipment and facilities. This includes cleaning machinery, boilers, and other industrial equipment with strong alkalis and acids to remove residues and buildup, as well as large-scale cleaning of factory floors, walls, and other surfaces using chemicals like sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid to eliminate grease, grime, and other contaminants. In this context, workers face hazards such as chemical burns, inhalation of toxic fumes, and accidental mixing of incompatible chemicals, which can lead to hazardous reactions and explosions.

Various manufacturing and processing industries rely on hazardous chemicals for different stages of production. For example, the textile industry uses chemicals such as sulfuric acid for fabric processing and dyeing, while food processing employs cleaning agents and disinfectants containing sodium hydroxide and other alkalis to ensure hygiene standards. Metal processing and plating industries use acids and alkalis for cleaning, etching, and plating metals. Workers in these sectors are at risk of skin burns, respiratory issues, and long-term health effects due to chronic exposure.

Water treatment facilities use a range of chemicals to purify water and treat wastewater, including sodium hydroxide, chlorine, sulfuric acid, and various disinfectants. Workers in these facilities face hazards from chemical splashes, inhalation of chlorine gas, and accidental spills that can cause skin and eye injuries.

The oil and gas industry utilizes hazardous chemicals in various processes, such as drilling, refining, and cleaning equipment. For instance, fracking involves the use of chemicals like hydrochloric acid to break down rock formations, while refining uses sulfuric acid and other chemicals to process crude oil into usable products. Equipment cleaning in this industry requires strong alkalis and solvents to clean drilling rigs and pipelines. Common risks include explosions, fires, chemical burns, and toxic inhalations.

In agriculture and pesticide production, hazardous chemicals are used to protect crops and manage pests. Pesticides and herbicides contain chemicals that can be harmful if inhaled or come into contact with skin, and fertilizers often include compounds like ammonia and nitrates, which can be hazardous. Workers in these fields are at risk of respiratory issues, skin irritation, poisoning, and long-term health problems.

Laboratories and research facilities use a variety of chemicals for experimentation and analysis, including acids, alkalis, solvents, and other hazardous substances. Experimental procedures in these settings often require handling volatile and reactive chemicals, posing risks of accidental spills, inhalation of fumes, chemical burns, and explosions.

Historical Explosions, Fires & Fatalities

Several high-profile incidents illustrate the potential dangers of the hazardous chemicals used in tank washing and other industries:

  • West Fertilizer Company Explosion (2013): In West, Texas, an explosion caused by ammonium nitrate killed 15 people and injured over 160.
  • Phillips 66 Explosion (1989): In Pasadena, Texas, a chemical plant explosion killed 23 workers and injured 314.
  • BP Texas City Refinery Explosion (2005): An explosion at the refinery resulted in 15 deaths and over 170 injuries.

Protecting Tank Washing Workers

The cleaning of transportation tanks and similar jobs involving hazardous chemicals pose significant risks to workers. Understanding these dangers and implementing stringent safety measures is essential to protect those who face these threats daily. Increased awareness, adherence to regulations, and legal recourse are critical steps in safeguarding workers' health and lives. No matter what.
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