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Plant & Refinery Explosion Attorneys

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Plant and refineries are a common sight throughout Texas and the nation as a sign of a booming economy and ever-growing industrial sector. Unfortunately, with these numerous facilities, serious accidents can occur—such as explosions, fires, and other catastrophic incidents. Take, for example, the 2005 explosion in Texas City, or the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. Both of these were catastrophic.

Workers in the industrial industry face potential dangers every day. Unfortunately, the U.S. has the highest number of deaths resulting from plant explosions. Studies have shown that the heat emitted from these accidents can be over 1,000 degrees. For those who work at locations such as fertilizer plants, the threat of a fire or explosion is a constant reality. If you or a loved one were injured in a plant explosion, the injuries and disabilities that result could be life-altering. In many cases, the accident is so severe that workers do not survive the blast and subsequent fires.

Plant & Refinery Fires

Plants and oil refineries are job sites where disasters of massive proportions are most likely to occur.

This is due to the inherent dangers of working with certain chemicals and compounds. When accidents happen at these facilities, they usually aren't small. In fact, they can claim the lives of countless workers and residents. These types of fires not only result in extensive property damage, but they can also cause serious injury. For example, a victim in a fire could suffer from a burn injury ranging from minor to debilitating. Some burn injuries are so severe that limbs have to be amputated; in the most extreme scenarios, these injuries can be fatal.

Repercussions of these accidents can include the following:

The reason these accidents are so severe is the substances being worked with are often highly flammable. Take, for example, an oil refinery. For crude oil to be refined, it has to go through a process known as fractioning, which is achieved by heating up a tank to temperatures of up to 400 degrees Celsius so the oil can be divided into different parts. If these pipes or the fractioning chamber leaks, the oil could contact gases and heat that could cause an uncontrollable fire. The same can happen at a chemical plant. Chemicals are highly combustible materials, which means all the machinery at the plant has to be adequately contained for operations to run smoothly. One slight spill or leak could result in a massive flame.

Common Injuries from Plant Explosions & Fires

The injuries that are sustained in the aftermath of plant and refinery explosions are immense—and often fatal. Many can be incurred from the physical blast itself; however, in some cases, the aftermath is just as deadly.

Some of the most common injuries sustained in explosions and fires include:

  • Burns
    The heat that can be created by tragic plant explosions can spike into the thousands of degrees. Exposure to this kind heat—let alone the different chemical present in many plants and refineries—can be the cause of severe burns. Not only are these painful, but they can also result in long-lasting scarring and disfigurement, which is emotionally challenging and psychologically damaging.
  • Orthopedic Injuries
    This includes injuries to muscles, joints, and ligaments. This can be broken bones, skull fractures, damaged vertebrae, herniated/bulging discs, as well as sprains and strains. Most of these injuries are sustained in the initial blast.
  • Lacerations
    Victims can suffer severe lacerations or cuts from debris falling or exploding. Regardless of whether it is a shallow gash or a deep wound, these can be painful and result in permanent scarring.
  • Acoustic Trauma
    Beyond the heat, one of the most dangerous aspects of a plant explosion is the sheer noise. That alone can cause acoustic trauma to those anywhere near the explosion. The noise-induced hearing loss is a real problem, which can be caused by a one-time exposure that damages the hair cells and the auditory nerve. This may result in damage that is either temporary or permanent.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
    Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is most often referred to in regards to soldiers returning from war, but it has long since been known that those who undergo a traumatic accident—such as an explosion—can experience it as well. This can leave victims to re-live the trauma over and over again, feel numb to their surroundings, or be "hyper-alert."
  • Smoke Inhalation
    When a plant explodes or begins to burn, it causes plumes of smoke to rise into the air and then settle into the low-lying areas surrounding the facility. Inhalation of this smoke is highly dangerous to victims. Not only can it cause immediate symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath, but it can cause long-term effects as well, such as damage to the small airways.

Common Causes of Industrial Plant & Refinery Explosions

While these sorts of accidents are happening with seemingly more frequency, there is not one answer to what causes them. Depending of the type of plant, the causes of explosions vary. In some cases, it begins as a small flame, such as a cigarette, that quickly spreads out of control. In other cases, employers or employees were negligent in maintaining equipment and machinery. Below, we explain common causes of explosions.

1) Malfunctioning Equipment

One cause of explosions is a lack of maintenance, which can lead to serious malfunctions. Plants depend on the functioning of their equipment. If this equipment is not kept up to standards, it can result in catastrophic accidents. This could be anything from boilers, to pressure vessels, to alarms, to storage tanks. Equipment that has weakened or stopped working cannot do its job, and therefore cannot keep workers safe.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set guidelines for businesses to follow. When they failed to uphold these, they can be liable for any injury caused as a result. Machinery commonly seen at plants require intense scrutiny before operations commence. Even the slightest error can lead to an accident of incredible proportions. These types of accidents commonly cause death, not just injury.

Take, for example, the Williams Olefins plant explosion that occurred in Geismar, LA on June 13, 2013. All signs point to the explosion being caused by a "catastrophic failure" of the plant's heat exchanger. In another case, OSHA investigated Connecticut's Kleen Energy Systems plant after an explosion and found more than 400 safety violations. Both of these explosions show us that while some accidents are unavoidable, many could have been prevented through adequately maintaining and updating refinery equipment.

2) Poor Training of Refinery Employees

One cause of explosions is the inadequate training of employees.

Lack of training in operating machinery or using personal protective equipment is a violation of safety regulations. Employers are responsible for providing their employees with the necessary training to avoid accidents, as well as respond accurately should an accident occur. Due to the high risk associated with refinery jobs, it is imperative that all employees are put through a comprehensive training program. Employee training should include education on how to properly operate machinery, handle and store volatile chemicals, and avoid the risk of combustion.

Per the Industrial Skills Training Network, employees should be trained on:

  • Safe work habits and safety guidelines
  • Chemical safety hazards
  • Basic emergency response training
  • Preparing hazardous materials for transport
  • Working safely with electrical equipment
  • Properly reading warning signs and labels

3) Unseen Corrosion

Metal is continually being worn down during everyday processes of a plant or refinery. Unfortunately, due care is not always taken to ensure metal has not weakened and is still performing at its peak. When metal goes unchecked, it can begin to wear down and corrode. In some cases, the surrounding environment can even begin oxidation. Over time, metal is gradually worn down as it reacts to the surrounding environment.

While this is a typical reaction, it can become deadly if it is not noticed and fixed. In some cases, corrosion can be seen by discoloration, but that is not always the case. In fact, unseen corrosion can be so subtle that even highly trained inspectors may miss it—or it may be hidden in a part of a machine that is not easily accessible. When corrosion goes unseen, it will gradually worsen, causing the machine to become increasingly dangerous to use. If the corrosion goes unseen long enough, it can eventually lead to a deadly explosion or a fire.

4) Dirty & Impure Chemicals

The mixture of chemicals is central to most plant operations.
To ensure the safety of all employees, there are strict regulations regarding what type and quality of chemicals can be used. When impure or dirty chemicals are used, it can lead to unforeseen and undesirable consequences—such as undesirable chemical reactions.

5) Poor Facility Maintenance & Unsafe Working Conditions

Unsafe working conditions are often the cause of many accidents—which means that they could have been avoided. Take, for example, the Texas City refinery explosion. This was one of the worst refinery accidents the U.S. has ever seen, and it was caused by failure to abide by safety regulations. This incident was a record-topping event for safety violations as well as violations for failure to make improvements after the disaster.

One of the most important steps employers can take to protect workers is to maintain their facilities properly. Due to the hazardous material and dangerous equipment on location, accidents are bound to happen if proper maintenance is ignored. Due to the countless refinery explosions over the years, facility maintenance has become a subject of high interest, which has led to the implementation of various federal laws.

Federal law now requires employers to provide employees with proper tools and equipment, as well as training in how to inspect equipment and recognize the need for maintenance. If a refinery is not correctly inspected or cleaned, it is not safe. A disorganized facility can cause malfunctioning equipment, dangerous work environments, chemical reactions, and even leaks or spills, which can lead to catastrophic accidents.

6) Failure to Follow OSHA Guidelines

To regulate industrial workplaces, OSHA has put into place strict regulations that are used to enhance worker safety. Unfortunately, these are not always adhered to. When violations are made, either through intentional or negligent actions, the employees are the ones who suffer. If an employer does not comply with OSHA operating standards, they are not only endangering themselves and their workers but also those who live near the refinery. OSHA standards are created to ensure that the workplace is kept free from hazards and that every possible safeguard is put in place to avoid an accident. When these are knowingly or neglectfully ignored, it can lead to serious refinery explosions and fires.

Some guidelines that should always be complied with:

  • Inspecting, testing, and performing preventative maintenance
  • Completing a process safety information (PSI) about potential hazards

Aging Plant Equipment Claims

In addition to the above, one of the most common, tragic causes of explosion is the use of aging equipment.

According to Kurt Arnold, many plants have not been updated for half a century, leaving ancient technology still in place. While employers may view this as a shortcut, it endangers the lives of workers.

Use of Old, Outdated Equipment in Plants & Refineries

This is not a problem limited to the U.S. In fact, in 2013, former chairman of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, slammed the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant for its use of "sub-standard material." According to his criticism, the inferior materials being used at the plant created serious problems and raised alarming safety concerns. In the United States and globally, there is growing alarm about the risks of using aging equipment in plants and refineries of all kinds—particularly plants handling potentially harmful materials.

According to Mr. Arnold, that is just not acceptable:
"Most plants have not been updated in 50 or 60 years, and most of the equipment that is used is really old equipment. It's old technology. It's things that worked when we otherwise didn't have new technology available, but for whatever reason most companies have decided not to upgrade their plants and not to build new plants."

The Consequences of Ignoring Aging Equipment

The Texas City Refinery explosion that killed 15 workers and injured nearly 200 in March 2005 was caused by old equipment that failed. According to the reports following the tragedy, the explosion occurred in an isomerization unit where a raffinate splitter had been overfilled with overheated liquid. In the end, there were several causes of the incident, but one that stood out was the failing of equipment which was used in the plant.

In fact, earlier the year of the explosion, Telos had reviewed that plant and found several alarming defects:

  • Broken alarms
  • Thinning pipe
  • Falling concrete
  • Excessive fumes

In 2013, a Chevron refinery in California’s Bay Area exploded, spreading crude oil and dangerous fumes into the air. The refinery is the third largest in California, and among the oldest as well; in fact, it has been operating for over a century. It should come as no surprise that the plant is riddled with parts that need replacing, and it frequently suffers from fires and explosions (one of which occurred less than a year before this one).

This particular explosion was caused by a failed pipe that was over 30 years old. It was first installed in the 1970s and was never replaced. A similar issue caused a fire in 2012 at the same plant. That is the issue with problems caused by aging equipment—when a plant is not frequently updated or renovated (to save costs, to limit production interruption, etc.), it is far too easy for catastrophic failure to occur on a frequent basis.

Talk to a Plant Explosion Lawyer as Soon as Possible!

At Arnold & Itkin, we are no strangers to helping the victims of plant accidents. We have seen firsthand the devastation they cause and have been involved in cases involving these catastrophic incidents before. Our legal team helped represent those injured in the 2005 BP Texas City explosion, as well as dozens of workers hurt by the 2013 chemical plant explosion in Geismar, LA. We know just how difficult it can be in the aftermath of such a tragedy, and we are dedicated to doing everything possible so that our clients can receive justice.

If you or a loved one has been injured, then you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries, your losses, and any property damage you suffered. It is essential to know where you stand. By talking to our plant explosion lawyers, you could receive experienced legal counsel and find out whether you have a case. We are passionate about getting innocent victims the compensation they rightfully deserve. Although we are located in Houston, Texas, we represent clients nationwide, securing billions in record-setting verdicts and settlements.

Our firm understands how difficult the time after an accident can be, and so we do everything possible to protect the best interests of victims and their families. Contact us immediately to learn how we can help you.

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