September 15, 2009
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Federal safety officials have rejected a series of urgent recommendations that investigators offered after an explosion at a Slim Jim factory in North Carolina killed three people.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that staff members of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board wanted the agency to immediately distribute a safety bulletin and recommendations, saying the June blast exposed weaknesses in nationwide standards. The staff proposed guidelines that would require more controls on how workers handle gas-line purges.
Two of the four board members voted down the idea last month, saying code writers should be the ones to decide on new guidelines, not the safety board.
The decision frustrated safety advocates who have been following the plant explosion. Tom O'Connor, executive director of the advocacy group National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said he believes the four board members, all appointed during the administration of President George W. Bush, opposed the recommendations because of an ideological opposition to over-regulation.
"It's hard for me to understand that it's even controversial." O'Connor said. "It seems like this ought to be a no-brainer."
O'Connor said his group hasn't spent much time pushing for replacements on the White House-appointed board, but he said the latest vote indicates to him that advocates need to get the issue before President Barack Obama.
Investigators believe contractors installing a water heater vented natural gas inside the building, leading to the blast. The contractor, Energy Systems Analysts, reported that it was common practice, and investigators said the room was ventilated by an exhaust fan.
Safety board staff identified similar explosions that involved the purging of gas lines, including a May 2008 incident during the construction of a San Diego hotel that injured 14, an August 2007 explosion at a hotel in Cheyenne, Wyo., that injured two, and an explosion at a Porterville, Calif., school that burned two plumbers in November 2005. They also noted another North Carolina incident — a 1997 explosion at a fitness center in Cary that injured six.
Current safety codes, developed by a committee convened by the National Fire Protection Association and the American Gas Association, says gas purges "shall not be discharged into confined spaces or areas where there are sources of ignition unless precautions are taken."
Investigators determined that the codes needed more specifics, according to the report from August. They recommended new guidelines require that, wherever practical, gases be purged to a safe location outdoors. If that's not possible, they suggested evacuating nonessential personnel, establishing adequate ventilation and controlling ignition sources. Staff also said workers should use gas detectors to monitor conditions.
The explosion that rocked ConAgra Foods Inc.'s plant for Slim Jims south of Raleigh killed three, critically injured four and sent dozens of others to the hospital. More than 200 people were working in the building when the explosion happened and part of the facility's roof collapsed.
An attorney for Energy Systems Analysts did not return a call seeking comment but wrote to the chemical safety board that the recommendations contained unspecified inaccuracies.
The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents several hundred workers at the site in Garner, blasted the decision.
"It's outrageous that anybody would vote against protecting the safety of workers, especially when the recommendations were as simple as, 'You shouldn't have people in the room when there's natural gas being pumped into it,'" said Corey Owens, spokesman for the UFCW. "These commissioners that voted against it need to seriously reconsider their commitment to mission of the chemical safety board."
The safety board investigates industrial chemical accidents and makes safety recommendations to companies, industry groups and regulatory agencies. Staff members said the agency was already working with code writers on the state, national and international level and that the groups recognized the need to update their guidelines.
Gary Visscher and William Wright, two of the four board members, wrote in opposition to the recommendations that they both saw room to improve the agency's guidance but that the urgent recommendations were too strong. They wrote that experts on the committees that write codes would be better suited to establish the guidance.
"These organizations and committees have a lot more experience and expertise, both with gas installations and with the codes themselves, than do we," Visscher wrote.
John S. Bresland, the board's chairman who voted to endorse the recommendations, said in a statement that the board is considering a revised safety bulletin this week and continues to review and revise the language of possible safety recommendations.
"The CSB is committed to measures to ensure that fuel gas purging operations are conducted in the safest possible manner," Bresland said.
The full investigation into the incident isn't expected to finish until next year.