CSB Issues Final Report On Chelsea Building Explosion, Calls On New York City To Strengthen Fire Code

September 30, 2003

(New York City - September 30, 2003) The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) today recommended that New York City modernize its 85-year-old municipal fire code, concluding that a stronger code and better inspections might have prevented last year's building explosion in Chelsea. That blast on April 25, 2002, injured 36 people, including 14 members of the public and six firefighters.

The CSB found that the accident at Kaltech Industries, a commercial sign manufacturer, resulted from mixing two incompatible waste chemicals, lacquer thinner and nitric acid, without following basic safety requirements. The full five-member CSB Board was expected to approve the report and issue the recommendations at a public meeting in New York City today.

The report calls on the Mayor and City Council of New York to revise the Fire Prevention Code to "achieve more comprehensive control over the storage and use of hazardous materials." CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt stated: "Hazardous materials need to be identified, labeled, and managed under an approved plan. Incompatible materials need to be separated. Finally, workers need to be trained in their own language and provided with material safety data sheets that indicate known hazards. These measures, most of which are already part of model fire codes, will go a long way toward preventing future chemical accidents in New York City." The CSB report also recommends changes to federal and New York state inspection programs.

The Board is also expected to recommend that if a building houses businesses that use hazardous materials, the building should be required to develop a hazardous materials safety plan and designate an individual to ensure the plan is implemented. Tenant businesses that store or use hazardous materials should be required to provide critical information to assist in the development of that plan.

CSB investigators found two root causes at the heart of the Kaltech accident. First, company management did not provide workers with sufficient information about the hazardous chemicals stored and used there. Second, the company was not in compliance with several important waste disposal requirements. The report cited as contributing factors the lack of sufficient chemical safety precautions in the New York City fire code and the failure of government inspections to detect unsafe practices at Kaltech.

CSB lead investigator Steve Selk said that government authorities have an opportunity to prevent such tragic occurrences. "Smaller businesses sometimes aren't aware of required practices for handling hazardous materials," Mr. Selk said. "Routine inspection and enforcement by local and state authorities is one way that businesses learn about good safety practices - before an accident occurs." City fire inspectors had visited Kaltech about once a year but did not inspect the basement where the hazardous chemicals were stored, according to the report. Neither the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation nor the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had ever inspected the facility.

Chairman Merritt said, "Explosions like this can happen again if local businesses are not inspected by fully trained inspectors armed with modern codes and standards for hazardous materials. There are likely thousands of similar businesses that use chemicals around the city and the nation, with varying levels of safety practice."

The New York City fire code has not been comprehensively revised since it was first adopted in 1918. Unlike more modern codes, such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Code and the International Fire Code (IFC), the New York City code lacks up-to-date provisions for the safe handling of hazardous materials. By state law, all New York jurisdictions except New York City follow a modified version of the International Fire Code. At an April 2003 CSB field hearing in New York City, municipal officials acknowledged deficiencies in the existing city fire code. As one official testified, "It appears that select model codes are more complete in scope and breadth as compared to the current New York City Fire Prevention Code."

Kaltech Industries Group made commercial signs and used hazardous chemicals to etch and clean metal. Kaltech was located in the basement, mezzanine, and part of the first floor at 123 West 19th Street, in a building that also housed service firms, professional offices, and other businesses. The explosion originated in the basement, causing extensive damage there, and spread up through an elevator shaft and a stairwell, shattering street-front windows on the first five floors of the ten-story brick structure. The building façade was partially destroyed and collapsed into 19th Street.

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. 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 or 202-441-6074 (cell)

Sandy Gilmour Communications, 202-261-7614 or 202-251-5496 (cell)

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