Causes of Plant Explosions

Understanding the "Why" Behind Plant & Refinery Disasters

With all of the chemicals prevalent in modern-day life, it is an unfortunate truth that we are sometimes forced to pay the price. While many workplaces are at risk for explosions, workers at chemical or industrial plants are exposed to greater risks. By the creation of gases, the build-up of heat, and the reaction, a chemical plant can become the source of serious and debilitating explosions. These can result in serious plant explosion injuries, such as third-degree burns, and even severe property damage that can affect the local community for years to come.

Employer Responsibility

OSHA fines, issues citations, and penalizes employers that deprive workers of a safe environment. As the owner of a company, it is their responsibility to ensure that every measure is taken to ensure the safety and health of the employees on-site, as well as those in the surrounding communities. According to the United States Chemical Safety Board, there are a number of dangers associated with the use of natural gas for fuel pipe cleaning, primarily due to it being highly flammable. As OSHA seeks to implement safe workplaces, they highly encourage industrial sites to use non-flammable and non-explosive options when cleaning fuel pipe systems.

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OSHA's general standards for employers include, but are not limited to:

  • Create a safe work environment free of hazards following all safety and health requirements
  • Regularly check workplace conditions
  • Equip employees with the proper equipment and safety tools
  • Maintain all equipment and tools / replace as needed
  • Warn workers of all hazards on site
  • Train workers in health and safety procedures, frequent review of these standards
  • Notify OSHA within 8 hours of an accident including three or more injured workers or a fatality

Poor Facility Maintenance

Studies of the most recent plant explosions reveal that the leading cause for an accident is a poorly maintained facility. The chemicals produced on an industrial plant are done so through the use of a broad range of equipment and tools. This equipment requires both specialized training and must be properly maintained in order to perform efficiently and safely. If the plant operators fail to comply with maintenance and safety regulations concerning their equipment, the risk of disaster is heightened dramatically. Workers assigned to maintenance are expected to inspect and replace outdated or worn equipment, especially those that may pose a risk if overlooked, such as catalysts, reagents, and boilers.

Training for Industrial Workers

All employees should have an excellent understanding of the machinery they work with, the chemicals they are handling, the dangers for combustion, and the risks associated with certain actions. All employees should be taught how to prevent combustion and make sure they know how to avoid any potentially hazardous situations involving mixing chemicals or using an open flame near flammable materials. Unfortunately, some companies underrate the importance of training for employees, which can result in a devastating accident at the worksite.

All employees at industrial worksites should take courses that discuss:

  • Safe work habits
  • Safety guidelines to reduce the risk of working with hazardous substances
  • Chemical safety hazards
  • Control measures for chemical safety
  • Basic emergency response training
  • How hazardous materials and their containers are prepared for transportation
  • What types of documentation are required to transport hazardous material
  • Various aspects of working safely with electrical equipment at a plant
  • Structural checks and power system checks that should be completed before using a forklift

What Causes Plant Explosions?

In all truthfulness, there are many different situations that can lead to a plant explosion; however, some are more common than others. For example, simple fires can quickly spiral out of control, causing large explosions.

Other common causes of plant explosions include:

  • Boilers that are not properly cared for
  • Careless cigarette smoking
  • Lack of equipment maintenance
  • Flammable chemicals or materials
  • Electric hazards
  • Malfunctioning and dangerous equipment
  • Improper maintenance of machinery
  • Unseen corrosion
  • The use of impure or dirty chemicals
  • Failing to properly train all employees
  • Well blowouts
  • Poor labeling
  • Unsafe procedures
  • Violations of OSHA safety regulations

The causes of plant explosions are usually preventable, which makes explosions all the more tragic. It can be difficult to determine the direct cause, and it often takes several months to find answers. More often than not, a refinery explosion is a result of numerous factors. Poor maintenance, unsafe procedures, improperly stored chemicals, poor labeling, bad valves, or electrical hazards are often to blame.

When employer negligence is involved, it can lead to frustration, outrage, and even widespread community protests. If you have recently been injured in a plant explosion, then it is in your best interests to get the involvement of an experienced attorney who can help you file a claim in regards to the explosion.

The Threat of Plant Corrosion

Corrosion is a natural process that occurs whenever machinery is exposed to oxygen on a plant refinery. It is a distinct hazard because of the nature of the work that is being completed. In order to complete the process of refining crude oil, these plants utilize extreme heat. High temperatures aid in the fractional distillation that is necessary to complete the process of refining oil.

Unfortunately, this process naturally creates corrosion, most of which cannot be seen by the common eye.

Unseen corrosion has been described as a silent killer. Its dangers are so easily unnoticed that they can be missed even when machines have been thoroughly inspected. Easy to overlook, corrosion can remain in machinery, getting worse with each passing use. As the equipment becomes more worn, it becomes increasingly more dangerous to use; unbeknownst to the workers who are utilizing the machinery, the equipment continues to get more use than is safe. Indicators such as chipping paint and wearing enamel are good ways of identifying corrosion.

Common Compounds at Industrial Chemical Plants

The chemicals handled in plants are highly reactive, which means they are to be handled with the utmost care and training. These compounds often act as a catalyst in causing an explosive reaction, which can mean devastation and catastrophe for anyone within close proximity. One of the most applicable elements is nitrogen. Nitrogen is found in compounds around an ordinary home, manufacturing warehouse, and agricultural field.

The uses of nitrogen are endless and it is undoubtedly one of the most necessary elements found on this planet. In particular, nitrogen is found in many of the most important industrial compounds such as ammonia, nitric acid, propellants, and explosives. Synthetic chemicals such as ammonium nitrate are key elements found in industrial fertilizers; their use is largely due to the chemical structure of nitrogen.

These conversions and productions are some of the processes that take place at the most common chemical plants and can include the use of other reactive chemicals such as ammonium nitrate, phosphorus, and potassium. However, because of the sensitivity of the compounds and elements being handled, such as nitrate gases, one slight factor can quickly precipitate an unforeseen explosive catastrophe.

Using Natural Gas to Clear the Pipes

The dangers of cleaning fuel gas piping systems with natural gas is a growing concern among industrial workers and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as there have already been devastating tragedies linked to it. On February 7, 2010, an explosion occurred at the Kleen Energy site in Connecticut that was caused by using natural gas to clean a power plant that was under construction at the time. Reports say that this incident resulted in at least 50 injuries and the deaths of 6 people. To clean the fuel gas piping system, workers were using a method called a "gas blow," which is when they use extreme pressure (650 pounds per square inch gauge) to push natural gas through the pipes.

Over a period of 4 hours, the workers conducted 15 different gas blows through the pipes, causing both gas and debris to be released into the atmosphere. OSHA investigators note that in this incident, the employers did not have a safety meeting prior to the cleaning project. During such a meeting, they would have addressed both the hazards of the gas blows, as well as reviewed the safety procedures for cleaning. The explosion occurred during the cleaning when the gas was caught in a congested area of the pipe; this led to the dispersion of the natural gas. The pipes that were being cleaned were located between a heat recovery generator; this area was overcrowded with equipment, making the area unsafe and a hazard. At the time of the explosion, there were an estimated 150 employees on site; nearly one-third of them suffered from the explosion.

Chemical Explosion Catalysts

A chemical explosion is a result of applying an external force to a chemical compound which causes the compound to undergo a structural change, releasing high amounts of heat and gas. The force is known as a catalyst. While catalysts are utilized to force the processing or production of new chemical compounds, catalysts can also cause unintended explosive reactions through actions that may accidentally accelerate.

Catalysis, the process of accelerating a chemical reaction, can be unintentionally caused at a chemical plant by poorly maintained equipment, an unclean work environment, or simply negligent behavior. When the equipment used to produce and process these chemical compounds is not properly cleaned, foreign elements can easily skew the process and cause a chemical accident. Furthermore, contaminated air in the plant warehouse itself can serve as a catalyst when the elements in the contaminated air combine with the chemicals being produced on the plant. A simple mistake can set off a destructive event.

Combustible Dust Explosions

Combustible dust is made of small particles that present an explosion hazard when in the right chemical or flammable atmospheres. A dust explosion can be catastrophic. In the past, these explosions have resulted in employee deaths, injuries, and property damage at plants and other work locations in the United States. Many employers and employees are not even aware of the risk of combustible dust in work environments. Despite the fact that little is said about combustible dust explosions, many industries are at risk of these types of blasts.

According to the OSHA, the following are at risk for combustible dust explosions:

  • Agricultural industries
  • Chemical plants
  • Food processing or manufacturing plants
  • Grain processing plants
  • Fertilizer plants
  • Tobacco plants
  • Furniture manufacturing facilities
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Pesticide companies
  • Tire and rubber manufacturing plants
  • Dye factories
  • Coal factories
  • Metal processing locations
  • Recycling operations
  • Paper and pulp processing plants
  • Woodworks industries
  • Plastics plants
  • Fossil fuel power generation plants

What Causes a Dust Explosion?

Oxygen, heat, and fuel may cause a blast in cases where the three elements react together. In a dust explosion, the dust is the fuel. OSHA writes that the dust particles need to disperse in a sufficient quantity and concentration to cause this. This is known as deflagration. If the deflagration happens in a confined space such as a room or an unventilated vessel, then this can cause the pressure to rise to an uncontainable level.

OSHA describes this process as the "dust explosion pentagon" with five points:

  • Heat
  • Fuel
  • Oxygen
  • Dispersion
  • Confinement

When a dust explosion occurs, it can often trigger secondary explosions. This is because the initial blast may disperse more combustible dust particles into the atmosphere, which will react with the heat. Many times, the secondary explosions are far more destructive than the initial explosion was. OSHA reports that most deaths in combustible dust explosions come from the secondary explosion, not the primary one.

Combustible dust explosions can almost always be prevented.

OSHA recommends that supervisors conduct a hazard assessment of all handled materials, operations conducted, spaces at the workplace, and potential ignition sources. If things need to be rearranged, repaired, or removed, then these actions need to be taken. Employers can also reduce the possibility of a combustible dust explosion by implementing a hazardous inspection and testing spaces for the presence of this fuel.

Contaminated Plant Sites Can Cause Explosions

There are many reasons that explosions occur at industrial plant sites, but one of the most common incidents that can cause an explosion is when the plant site is contaminated. When there are dangerous gases, chemicals, and sediments, chemical reactions can cause explosions.

Water Contamination

Often, contaminants in plant sites are located in the groundwater. Methane gas is a component in natural cases that can often enter groundwater through natural or industrial processes. According to the Water Systems Council, methane gas can become an explosion hazard at high concentrations. Methane forms an explosive mixture in the air when it is at concentrations between 5% and 15% volume. There are other factors that must contribute to triggering an explosion, such as the water temperature and the ventilation of the well where the methane is present. Also, air movement and the composition of the gas will determine what concentration of methane can produce an explosive hazard.

At industrial plants, waters must be tested for the presence of methane gas, as it could trigger a terrible reaction in the right circumstances. State and local health departments often provide water testing for methane. Well-water that contains methane concentrations above 29 milligrams per liter should be reduced immediately, and methane concentrations below 10 mg are typically considered safe.

Some nuclear power plants may also have concentrations of Tritium near the industrial site. This is mildly radioactive hydrogen that can occur naturally but heightened levels are typically found near operating nuclear plants. The water with tritium is normally released under monitored conditions from the plant. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) demands that all nuclear power plants check for the presence of radioactive materials on their site property as well as in the surrounding environment.

Industrial plants create contaminated groundwater and surface water through 4 main outlets including:

  • Evaporation of liquids
  • Routine, approved releases
  • Condensation of vapors
  • System leaks from pipes, valves, or tanks

Soil Contamination

These contaminants can also end up in the soil near a plant and can create dangers. The Federal Remediation Technologies Roundtable says that TNT is a common hidden contaminant in some soil that can trigger a massive explosion. Trinitrobenzene (TNB) can also be found in the dirt surrounding some military compounds and may be identified near an industrial plant. Other dangerous sediments that the FRTR has discovered in soils include Dinitrobenzene, 2,4-dinitrotoluene (DNT), and 2,6-DNT. If you want more information about soil contamination, you should talk to an attorney to get an extensive list of soil pollutants that can trigger fires and explosions.

Air Pollution

Contaminants and harmful chemicals in the air can react at industrial plants and facilitate a blaze or explosion. United Air Specialists reports that combustible dust can often move through the air, causing a substantial threat to worker and plant safety throughout the U.S. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has identified 281 combustible dust incidents that have led to at least 119 deaths and 718 injuries.

Dust explosions happen when the oxygen, fuel, and ignition source are all present in just the right mixture. Often, the dust can serve as a fuel that can spark a reaction that can be damaging to both the facility and workers in the area. It is much easier for dust particles to facilitate a fire than an explosion, but with the right amount of dust, confinement, oxygen fuel, and an ignition source, a blaze is possible.

The OSHA says proper planning and system design, as well as property maintenance and operation of dust collection systems after installation, can minimize the chance of an explosion from dust particles of this nature. If you are employed at an industrial plant and are concerned about the dust collection within the facility, you need to speak with authority about your situation.

If no preventative measures are taken, and an accident occurs, then you may be able to hold your employer responsible because your concerns were not addressed as they should have been.

What Caused the Worst Plant Explosions in Recent History?

In 2005, BP's Texas City Refinery exploded-an accident that cost 15 lives and left 170 people with severe injuries. It was later reported that the explosion had occurred because of several actions. First, the raffinate splitter had been overfilled; this liquid was also overheated and had been over-pressurized. The blowdown drum and stack had been overwhelmed by the hydrocarbon fluid, which resulted in liquids coming over the top, flowing down the stack, and spilling on the ground. This all resulted in vaporization that was ignited by a truck later in the day. This was all eventually chalked up to plant owner failings in equipment, risk management, and even the general safety of the plant.

Another example is the explosion of the Kleen Energy Systems plant in 2010. This explosion resulted in 5 lives being taken and over 50 people suffering serious injuries. Possible causes of the incident center on the blow-down procedure. Following the incident, OSHA immediately began an investigation and has reported that a total of 17 companies will be fined as a result. Overall, there was a total of almost 400 safety violations-many of which the OSHA stated had been deliberate disregards of safety protocol. Unfortunately, such deliberate violations are not unheard of and can result in serious and debilitating injuries-they can even be tried as criminal negligence in certain cases.

Attorneys Fighting for You: Call (888) 493-1629 Today! Free Case Review.

If you have been involved in a plant explosion, you have a right to file for compensation. By getting the involvement of an aggressive law firm, you will be giving yourself the edge you need. At Arnold & Itkin LLP, we have been involved in cases relating to explosions before (such as the BP Texas City explosion and the Deepwater Horizon explosion); we know the best ways in which to protect your rights. We recognize that in many cases, plant owner negligence and disregard of safety can be the cause. We will do everything we can so that liable parties are held responsible for their actions. Should you choose to work with our firm, we will do everything possible to help.

For more information, do not hesitate to contact Arnold & Itkin LLP as soon as possible.

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