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Safety Insight - Learning from the AB Specialty Silicones Explosion

AB Specialty Silicones Safety Insight

CSB Final Report Issued for AB Specialty Silicones Explosion

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) issued the final investigation report regarding the fatal explosion and fire that raged on the night of May 3, 2019 in Waukegan, Illinois, killing four workers. The facility was not covered by OSHA 29 CFR 1910.119, Process Safety Management, yet the facility conducted batch chemistries with reactive chemicals that had the potential to produce hydrogen. Facilities that handle hazardous materials should ask the question “How can this type of event happen here” and learn from this incident to prevent catastrophe.

Do we know how bad it can be?

AB Specialty Silicones used a silicon hydride-containing material that had the capability of producing flammable hydrogen gas when mixed with strong acids or bases. A mistake made between batches resulted in sodium hydroxide (caustic) to come into contact with the silicon hydride, generating hydrogen gas. The facility was not designed to detect or vent the gas to a safe location, and the hydrogen exploded, destroying the building and killing four workers.

Facilities that handle and store hazardous materials with reactive chemical properties must undergo appropriate testing to understand potential vessel overpressure scenarios and safely handle hazardous byproducts. A Process Hazard Analysis can help identify scenarios where upset conditions can result in unintended chemistry. These results can help identify ways to prevent, detect, and contain the undesired outcomes when equipment fails, and people make mistakes.

Can we Learn from this Tragedy?

There are several themes from the CSB investigation of AB Silicones that can be applied to others and may be good talking points for your next safety moment. They include:

1. Ensure workers are aware of the properties of hazardous materials used at the facility and upset conditions that could result in vessel overpressure or creating a flammable or toxic byproduct.

2. Identify high-value areas of the facility that could benefit from a hazard analysis. Companies can be blind to the risk of processes not covered by these regulations and it is not unusual for a catastrophic risk to be missed.

3. Conduct a human factors assessment of critical tasks where one mistake could lead to catastrophe. Worker interfaces and controls should be installed to help workers be successful at their job tasks and unable to make a single mistake that results in catastrophic consequences.

Build a Learning Organization!

If you support an operation with reactive chemical hazards, you can make a difference. Start sharing safety messages and be curious to uncover potential hazards, with a focus on unanticipated or error-prone operational events. A few resources that may be able to help include the following:

DEKRA Process Safety has experience with managing reactive chemicals, hydrogen, and silicon hydride hazards. Please take action to understand and manage your facility’s risks and contact us for help.

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