What La Porte, TX Fire Taught Us About Chemical Hazards

Jeremy Lebowitz, PE

Lessons learned from suppressing a chemical fire in a power plant and the importance of power plant safety

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Recently, the Chemical Safety Board released their final report into a methyl mercaptan release at the DuPont Plant in La Porte, Texas, that killed four workers. The investigation identified weaknesses in the process safety culture. So how can you help prevent a fire like La Porte Plant in your own facility and protect your people, property and business continuity?

The incident offers important lessons for the chemical industry, particularly around developing a sound process safety management system. To achieve that, the most important step is hazard awareness. While OSHA and local building and fire codes address hazard awareness and communication, a positive safety culture starts with an understanding of your exposure and plausible worst-case scenarios.

Starting with the inventory of frequently used materials, it’s important to understand the different hazard categories in play. Are my chemicals flammable, reactive, toxic? Moving on, you’ll need to prioritize the quantity of material, since large tanks or totes of hazardous liquids can be more difficult to protect.

Once the general hazards and quantity are understood, a prudent next step is determining whether any hazards can be eliminated or substituted. Some use cases:

  • Your lab user has a process involving 37% hydrochloric acid, a corrosive liquid. By substituting a 15% solution, the liquid would no longer be considered corrosive.
  • You’re considering ordering 55-gallon drums of 70% nitric acid, since it’s less expensive than comparable quantities of the 10% solution used in your process. Your room is designed for corrosive storage, but 70% nitric acid is also an oxidizing liquid! Is your storage room properly designed to protect against this newly introduced hazard?
  • Your facility uses solid copper as part of a manufacturing process. Should you store your raw material as ingots, shot or dust? If you knew that the finer particle size was a much more severe fire hazard, would that change your mind?

If you’ve used tools like the Hazardous Material Expert Assistant (HMEx), manually pored over Safety Data Sheets, or come up short in determining a chemical’s hazard properties, sign up for HazAdvisr database access! With hazard properties of thousands of chemicals and mixtures at your fingertips, you can keep your project moving. If our database doesn’t have the material you’re looking for, our experts will quickly classify the hazard properties of your chemical. Then, our fire protection and chemical safety consultants can help you design your facility to ensure any hazards that aren’t eliminated or substituted are protected accordingly.

The LaPorte fire was a wake-up call for many companies that they need to anticipate and mitigate safety concerns ahead of time—creating a positive, proactive safety culture across the organization.

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