(Washington, DC - January 28, 2004) The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) has broadened its investigation into the root causes of the catastrophic dust explosion and fire which occurred at the West Pharmaceutical Services plant in Kinston, NC, on January 29, 2003, initiating a nationwide review of safety issues raised by accident.
The West explosion killed six workers and injured dozens more. As the CSB announced at a June 2003 public meeting in Kinston, investigators believe fine polyethylene dust particles, released during the production of rubber products, had accumulated above the tiles of a false ceiling, creating an explosion hazard at the plant. Investigators have not yet determined what ignited the dust.
In a statement issued today, CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt said, "The explosion at West Pharmaceuticals and a similar incident a few weeks later in Kentucky raise safety questions of national significance. Our investigators have found that both disasters resulted from accumulations of combustible dust. Workers and workplaces need to be protected from this insidious hazard. I can't help but think that if only this hazard had been revealed to West beforehand, we would not be here on the first anniversary of this tragedy analyzing its causes."
The explosion February 20, 2003, in Corbin, KY, killed seven workers, injured more than 30 others, and seriously damaged the CTA Acoustics fiberglass insulation manufacturing plant. A further dust explosion - on October 29, 2003, at the Hayes Lemmerz automotive parts plant in Huntington, IN - is also under investigation by the Board. In that incident, one man was killed and two were severely burned when aluminum dust was ignited.
Prompted by these events, the CSB is now examining the number and severity of dust explosions throughout the United States over the past several decades. Preliminary results of the study are expected to be available when the West investigation is complete, approximately within the next six months.
Stephen Selk, lead investigator in the West Pharmaceuticals accident, said earlier tests, including a demonstration at the June 2003 public meeting, showed the explosive potential of even small amounts of combustible dust. Mr. Selk said, "The investigation is progressing, and we are testing more theories about how the dust ignited. Laboratory tests are underway to determine whether an undisturbed layer of dust can be ignited by a hot surface or spark. We are also evaluating the causes of other fires and explosions in the rubber compounding industry to see if there is any similarity."
Mr. Selk said the CSB is examining whether the hazards of combustible dust have been adequately controlled through codes, standards, and good operating practices, and will also review programs in place overseas. "How much dust accumulation can be tolerated before it becomes hazardous? And if it is hazardous, what are the appropriate controls? We believe all this information will be applicable to a variety of industries across the country," Mr. Selk said.
The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of such events, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in safety management systems. Typically, the investigations involve extensive witness interviews, examination of physical evidence, and chemical and forensic testing. The Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA. Further information about the CSB is available from www.csb.gov.
For more information, contact Daniel Horowitz, 202-261-7613 / 202-441-6074 (cell) or Sandy Gilmour Communications, 202-261-7614 / 202-251-5496 (cell).