The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have found recurring causes of accidents in the chemical industry and petroleum refineries, which include lack of process hazards analysis (PHA), poor analysis of process condition, use of improper or badly-designed chemical equipment, and training and operator error (Belke, 2007). In particular, the installation of pollution or emissions control equipment has contributed various significant accidents in the industry, highlighting the importance of having stronger systems for management of change (Belke, 2007). This also shows the importance of properly integrating new equipment into the existing system in order to avoid additional hazards.

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The inadequacy of hazard review or PHA can be in several forms. These may include failure to address known equipment failure scenarios, failure to determine all process hazards, and insufficiency of Material Safety Data Sheets to identify all chemical reactivity, explosive hazards, or thermal stability (Belke, 2007).

Furthermore, the analysis made by EPA and OSHA found that error on the part of operator is rarely the root cause of accidents in chemical plants. The Safety Precedence Sequence shows that several impediments must fail before the action of a single operator can cause a hazard or accident (Belke, 2007). It involves the importance of design for minimum hazard, installation of safety devices, use of safety warnings, use of control with procedures, personnel action through awareness, training, and knowledge, and accepted risk (Belke, 2007).

Recent News on Accidents in Chemical/Refinery Plants in the United States

An explosion occurred at the Sunoco refinery plant in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania around 10:15 AM on May 17, 2009. The accident has resulted in a chemical fire that lasted for almost 24 hours. It is believed that the explosion came from the storage tanks of the ethylene unit (Pennsylvania Personal Injury Attorney, 2009).

Ethylene is considered a common organic chemical manufactured from butane and usually utilized to produce other organic chemicals like ethylene glycol, polypropylene, polyethylene, also known as antifreeze (Pennsylvania Personal Injury Attorney, 2009). Ethylene oxide contains a carcinogenic compound that has ahigh probability to cause cancer in high dosages.

Page 2 Accidents, Incidents and Fatalities in a Chemical/Refinery Plant Essay

After the incident, several residents near the plant started to worry about the possibility that the toxic chemicals would begin to fall on them. Sonoco Inc. and local officials explain to the residents that ethylene oxide would not harm them onceit is burned off, which happened during the explosion (Pennsylvania Personal Injury Attorney, 2009).

Pennsylvania Personal Injury Attorney (2009) argues that chemical fires and explosions at industrial plants and refineries can be extremely hazardous, not only to the employees but also to the people in the surrounding area because of the high possibility of being exposed to harmful chemicals in unstable states. When a chemical plant is caught in a fire, the health effect of the liquids and gases housed in the storage areas can be highly dangerous and unpredictable (Pennsylvania Personal Injury Attorney, 2009). This type of chemical accident, which is very common in the country, triggers the creation of Toxic Torts to address the problem.

 A toxic tort is defined as a legal lawsuit filed against a company or individual for their lack of attention that results to exposure of a harmful contaminant to other individuals who eventually suffer physical injury (Pennsylvania Personal Injury Attorney, 2009). Moreover, Sunoco Inc. has recently lost in a lawsuit filed by its client Joseph J. Hughes who suffered an accident while in the company premises. Hughes was exposed to steam that had been contaminated with hydrocarbons and eventually experienced tremors, speech problems and brain damage (Pennsylvania Personal Injury Attorney, 2009). He won a $1 million settlement against the company.

 BP’s refinery in Texas City continues to be one of the largest refineries in the world and the fourth largest refinery in the United States with a daily capacity of 417,000 barrels (Olsen, Fowler, Lee, & Hays, 2008). However, the company still holds the largest number of tragic explosions in the United States despite a $1 billion cleanup and over $20 million in fines due to catastrophic explosion in March 2005 (Olsen et al., 2009). According to an analysis conducted by “The Houston Chronicler,” the company continues to experience more fatal accidents at its refineries in the United States than any other major energy facility from 2005 to 2008 (Olsen et al., 2009).

The United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s recent investigation of accidents in the chemical industry found that the apparent rate of fatalities at BP is higher now than it was before the catastrophic explosion in March 2005 (Olsen et al., 2009). In comparison with other 146 refineries in the country, they had only nine fatal incidents from 2005 to 2008 (Olsen et al., 2009).

 As of 2008, BP has not been reproached by federal inspectors due to deaths that occurred in the Texas City facility in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Company spokesman Ronnie Chappell stated that the company has been successful in lowering deaths at its 10 refineries around the world (Olsen et al., 2009). BP refineries in Toledo, Ohio, Spain, and Australia have no fatal accidents in the last 10 years (Olsen et al., 2009).

Among the employees who have died at Texas City facility since the March 2005 explosion included Ronnie Graves who was crushed on July 21, 2006, electrician Richard Leining who was electrocuted on June 5, 2007, and veteran BP supervisor William Joseph Gracia who died on January 14, 2008 when a heavy metal lid accidentally flew off a water vessel (Olsen et al., 2009).

 Moreover, the Chronicle’s nationwide analysis of all refinery deaths in the United States showed that 29 people died between 2005 and 2008 operated by eight companies, including 20 deaths in Texas, 18 in Texas City, two in Port Arthur, three in California, two in Washington, two in Delaware, and two in Minnesota and Louisiana (Olsen et al., 2009).

Other news concerning accidents in chemical/refinery plants in the United States include the release of anhydrous ammonia at Tanner Industries in Swansea, South Carolina on July 15, 2009, which caused fatal injury to a woman who was exposed to ammonia vapor while driving her car near the facility, a nitric acid spill at the Electro-Coatings plant in Iowa on July 22, 2009, producing an orange-colored smoke coming from a chrome scrubber above the plant, and the release of uncontrollable flame from a leaking acetylene tank at Inland Power Equipment in Indio, California on July 22, 2009.

In conclusion, chemical accidents and fatalities described in the paper highlight the importance of being vigilant in practicing safety measures in the workplace and being prepared during an emergency or a disaster. The benefits that can be obtained in having an effective safety measures in the workplace and emergency planning and preparedness program include improvement in the morale of employees, lower rate of illness, injuries and absenteeism, increase in labor productivity, and less damage to property. The management has very important role to play in showing support for industrial safety programs and in implementing and reviewing the programs frequently.


Belke, J. C. Recurring causes of recent chemical accidents. Retrieved July 28, 2009, from

Olsen, L., Fowler, T., Lee, J. & Hays, K. (2008). Costly cleanup, fines have failed to halt BP

deaths. The Houston Chronicle. Retrieved July 28, 2009, from

Pennsylvania Personal Injury Attorney (2009). Marcus Hook Sunoco Refinery Explosion Results

in Chemical Fire. Retrieved July 28, 2009, from

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