50 serious safety violations and $917,000 penalty don't jive with corporate PR about integrity, safety, responsibility

One Middleton, Massachusetts resident thought it was an earthquake. Others said it sounded like a sonic boom. When Mr. Charlie Veradt heard the explosion, he said "I knew right off the bat that it was down the street," referring to the Bostik Inc. chemical plant owned by the global giant, petrochemical firm TOTAL. Just before 8:00 pm on Sunday, March 13, part of the plant exploded.

"'...We were sitting having dinner and then all of the sudden we thought the house was caving in,' said Joyce Cucchiara, who lives near the explosion. 'It was just unbelievable.'"

The explosion sent four workers from the plant to the hospital. Because of serious damage to the plant, it was two weeks before all of the workers were called back to work.

Bostik's corporate website and that of its parent company TOTAL suggest this is a model company, one you'd want operating in your community. TOTAL says:

"We consider it our responsibility to protect our employees, and employees of companies working with us, as well as communities near our sites and our customers, from the potential effects of our operations or products. For this reason, health and safety are our top priorities at all times."

Bostik insists that its business operates

"...in full compliance with regulations, legislation, and our Values and Operating Principles and the TOTAL Code of Conduct..."

These proclamations may look good on paper, but they don't jive with the dozens of safety violations identified by federal OSHA inspectors and the proposed $917,000 fine.

The Bostik plant uses a variety of chemicals to create reactions and form the adhesives they sell for commercial and residential applications. These reactions can be created safely, but only with a well-designed and diligently maintained system that is closely monitored along each step in the process. Deviations to the process have to be anticipated, analyzed for consequences, and planned for accordingly. According to the fire marshall, on March 13 a Class 1 (highly) flammable solvent was being added to a 4,000-gallon reaction vessel that contained polyester resin solution when the major explosion occurred.

OSHA's citations against Bostik describe 50 specific violations, including 9 classified as willful. Many of them indicate the firm's utter failure to comply with safety standards, especially those particularly designed for operations that use highly-hazardous chemicals. These standards have been on the books for decades. They are fundamental safeguards. It's hard to fathom how a company in the chemical processing business could get it so wrong.

The litany of infractions----many of which could have contributed to a catastrophic event----suggest process safety management was not a priority at this plant. That point is further reinforced by OSHA's finding that Bostik managers were aware of serious safety problems and hazards at the plant but failed to correct them. The last time the Bostik plant in Middleton was inspected by federal OSHA was 2001. That won't surprise those of you who already know that there are 9 million workplaces in the U.S. and only a few thousand State and Federal safety inspectors. Our system relies on employers to voluntarily comply with the law, and only on rare occasions will OSHA inspectors visit a workplace----such as after a catastrophic event or the site appears on a targeting list for high-hazard worksites----to determine if the employer is in compliance with all relevant health and safety standards.

Given Bostik's grievous disregard for workplace safety regulations and knowing that it has seven other plants in the U.S., I hope that federal OSHA and the States that run their own OSHA programs are assessing the safety programs at these other sites. They are located in Temecula, CA; Calhoun, GA; Conyers, GA; Louisville, KY; Paulsboro, NJ; Warminster, PA; and Greenville, SC.

OSHA wasn't the only safety agency that found problems in the Middleton plant. The Massachusetts' State fire marshall found several violations including

storing more chemicals than licensed;

having an unpermitted, dust-producing "grinding operation"; and

failing to get a permit for the storage of flammable liquids.

The fire marshall also noted that the State has more modern building code standards, with requirements for explosion venting, properly designed ventilation of flammable vapors, and manual emergency alarms. These safety features were not required at the Bostik chemical plant or other existing facilities that did not make changes to how their building was used.

The websites of Bostik and its $125 Billion-valued parent company are loaded with catchy PR phrases:

"Thinking, feeling and acting in the best interest of our stakeholders"

"People are our most important resource"

"Our values are reflected in the quality and integrity of our relationships

"Foster an overall culture of integrity, responsibility, caring and collaboration"

A firm that takes these words to heart would upgrade all of its plants beyond the bare minimum building codes, and implement a safety management system that identifies hazards promptly and corrects them.

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