Fatal Explosion Highlights Combustible Dust Hazards - Worksite Medical
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Without a doubt, combustible dust hazards pose a deadly serious danger on the worksite.

As evidence, a catastrophic explosion at a Newburyport pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing facility on May 4, 2023, resulted in a tragic loss of life. Prompting a meticulous investigation by OSHA, the event serves as terrible reminder of the importance of proper workplace safety.

The findings of this investigation underscore critical deficiencies in the facility’s process safety management program, revealing a lack of necessary safeguards in the chemical manufacturing process.

Here, we’ll take a look at the incident, the identified shortcomings, and the broader implications for workplace safety.

Let’s break it down.


Related Article: Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program Receives Update



A warning sign which reads Danger Hazardous Chemicals

The Incident


The fatal explosion occurred on May 4, 2023, during a chemical manufacturing process involving the production and drying of a chemical product known as Dekon 139.

The incident resulted in the tragic loss of an employee’s life, shedding light on the importance of safety measures in high-hazard environments.


OSHA Investigation Findings


Process Safety Management Deficiencies:

OSHA’s investigation identified significant problems in the facility’s process safety management program, particularly concerning highly hazardous chemicals and combustible dust hazards.

These deficiencies directly contributed to the explosion and subsequent fatal injuries.

See OSHA standard, Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals [fact sheet]


Specific Lapses Identified:

OSHA investigators highlighted several critical lapses in the company’s safety protocols, including the failure to determine the combustibility hazards of materials used in the Dekon 139 production process.

This oversight exposed employees to fire and explosion hazards arising from combustible dust hazards.

Additionally, the lack of safe upper and lower temperature limits for Dekon 139, and the absence of an evaluation of the consequences of deviation in the production process, were notable deficiencies.


Citations and Violations


OSHA’s Verdict:

In response to the identified lapses, OSHA cited the company for a total of 11 violations.

Among these, eight were classified as serious violations, two as repeat violations, and one as other-than-serious. The proposed penalties amounted to $298,254, reflecting the gravity of the hazards.

The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.


Violations and Lapses:

The specific violations ranged from the failure to include temperature limits for Dekon 139 & lack of evaluation of process deviations, to the absence of written procedures ensuring the ongoing integrity of processing equipment.

Failure to update safety information, operating procedures, and the review of a compliance audit report were also among the cited violations.


Previous Citations

  • A chemical fire in the building in June 2021 sent smoke pouring out of roof vents and prompted a hazardous materials team to respond, according to a fire department statement at the time.
  • In 2020, authorities said a chemical reaction caused a series of explosions at the plant. That happened only a year after OSHA found “serious” violations in how the company managed highly hazardous chemicals, according to online agency records.
  • The factory has also been cited by OSHA for workplace safety violations, and in 2019, paid a more than $50,000 penalty to settle Environmental Protection Agency charges that it violated hazardous waste laws.


Root Causes and Lessons Learned


Failure to Comply Fully:

The tragic combustible dust explosion at the manufacturing plant serves as a stark reminder of the stringent and comprehensive nature of OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard.

The failure to fully comply with these standards can result in severe or catastrophic consequences for employees, as evidenced by the loss life in this case.


Continuous Scrutiny and Maintenance:

OSHA’s Area Director Sarah Carle emphasized the need for employers to rigorously, completely, and continuously scrutinize, update, and maintain every element of the process properly.

This includes identifying and minimizing hazards to protect workers’ safety and health effectively. The incident underscores the critical importance of adherence to safety protocols in high-risk manufacturing processes.


Broader Implications for Combustible Dust Hazards & Workplace Safety


The fatality sends a resounding call for industry-wide scrutiny, urging companies to prioritize and uphold the highest standards of safety throughout all operations.

Ensuring the well-being of employees demands a holistic commitment to robust safety practices, continuous training, and rigorous adherence to regulations.

See OSHA Guidelines on Process Safety Management

See OSHA Standard on Process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals.


Bringing It Together


This preventable tragedy serves as a somber reminder of the severe consequences that can arise from lapses in process safety management.

The loss of a worker’s life underscores the critical need for unwavering commitment and diligence in upholding the highest safety standards in the workplace.

As OSHA’s investigation prompts reflection within the industry, it’s imperative for companies to learn from these incidents, fortify safety protocols, and prioritize the well-being of their workforce above all else.


About Worksite Medical

In most cases, OSHA requires medical surveillance testing, and at no cost to employees.

Worksite Medical makes that program easier with mobile medical testing.

We conduct on-site respirator fit tests, as well as audiometric exams, pulmonary function tests and heavy metal lab work, right on your job site. We also keep accurate, easy-to-access medical records for your convenience. You’ll keep your employees at work, and stay ahead of OSHA inspections.