West Fertilizer Plant Explosion Raises Chemical Safety Issues
Chemical Plant Safety
Interview with Anyck Turgeon, Firestorm Expert Council Member
by Marchet Butler
On Wednesday, April 17, 2013, a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas, was the site of a massive chemical explosion. The blast caused surrounding homes and businesses to be destroyed or damaged, not to mention the plant, which was leveled by the explosion.
The number of deaths is currently reported at 14 – reported among the dead were at least 11 emergency responders – with more than 200 injured. Four of the confirmed dead were among 18 EMS students who rushed to the scene. Half of the town was evacuated. Millions of dollars in damage to the plant, homes, and businesses was incurred, not to mention the lingering health costs of a chemical toxicity which enter into the environment and affect the health of the community.
I reached out to Anyck Turgeon, one of our expert council members who resides near the area. She is an internationally-recognized expert in the technology industry, security, chemical safety, and fraud, and was part of the volunteer effort helping victims. “The mood was very heavy and somber. I was helping distribute food and supplies,” she said. Yet, she wanted to emphasize the positive. “The spirit of cooperation was unlike anything I’ve seen before.” she said. Firefighters, EMS, police, and medical personnel were all working together. Many people donated food, supplies, and time to the effort.
Questions still remain about how the tragedy occurred, but Turgeon suspects it may be “the same old story as before.” According to Turgeon, there has been a steep rise in chemical incidents across the United States. In 2010 to 2011 alone, there was an increase of 400%. Turgeon states, “one out of three plants are currently facing chemical safety issues, and 27 percent of [plant workers] still fail to report chemical security incidents.”
While Turgeon can’t say what caused the blast at the West plant, she has noticed an alarming trend in the way chemical safety is managed in the U.S.
In general, plants lack comprehensive chemical safety programs. For example, plant employees–often underpaid–are not properly trained: “they don’t even know how to stop the chemicals [they handle].”
Basic safety precautions–fire extinguishers, eye wash stations, power shut offs–are insufficient. What is most alarming, however, is that employees fail to report safety violations for fear of losing their jobs.
I asked Turgeon if she had seen safe, well-run chemical plants. “In Japan, yes,” she said. “The plant owner takes great pride in having [their] office at the plant. They are like a family there.” The problem she sees in the U.S. is the lack of connection between the executives and people at the plant. Some owners run the business from afar without having visited in the plant in years.
Another problem she sees is the lack of government oversight and cooperation between regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to name a few.
For plant executives, the vast amount of regulations, recommendations, and resources can be overwhelming to understand and implement. “That’s where Firestorm can help,” Turgeon said. Firestorm can provide risk assessments, analyses, and other tested tools for safety and crisis management. “Many chemical disasters are preventable,” Turgeon said, adding that the chemical industry can work with insurance providers to improve safety and keep costs down for all parties. “It can be done in this industry; other sectors have done it.”
Regarding the catastrophe at the West fertilizer plant, Turgeon kept referring back to the panic she saw at the site: “People were coming up to me and asking ‘Have you seen my brother? Have you seen my sister?’ They were frantic.” Turgeon expects that the trauma experienced by the victims, their families, and the entire West community will have far-reaching consequences.
Currently, a standard for helping families in a multiple-injury or casualty incident is not addressed the majority of crisis management programs across the country. Firestorm is developing family assistance standards and best practices for dealing with this kind of incident, including planning, training, and support. These tools, based on the similar programs in the U.S. airline industry and U.S. military, will be a valuable and needed addition to handling crises like Wednesday’s chemical plant explosion.
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Site image credit: Photo from volunteer firefighter in West. [email protected]
About Anyck Turgeon: With more than 25 years of technology innovation and security experience, Anyck Turgeon is a proven executive with unmatched end-to-end security expertise (including IT management, data security and privacy, fraud prevention/detection/management, governance/risk/compliance (GRC), physical security, chemical safety and executive/financial management)…to full bio