You are here

Backgrounder: Chemical Disaster in La Porte, Texas

Backgrounder: Chemical Disaster in La Porte, Texas

DuPont, owner of plant where 4 died from chemical exposure, is worldwide seller of ‘safety’ training to other companies

 Company claimed $100 million in safety training revenue in 2004, but experts say discredited program discourages reporting, increases risk of workplace hazards

 To:         Reporters and editors covering chemical disaster in La Porte, Texas

 From:    National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH)

Re:         Backgrounder on DuPont

Date:     11-24-2014

Key quote: 

“You know that if you report an injury, everybody says, ‘You son of a bitch,’ ” said Dan Austin, who worked at the [DuPont Tonawanda, NY] plant for 30 years. “I’ve heard people say, ‘So-and-so reported an injury and it’s going to cost us our safety bucks this month.’ ”

New York Times, April 1, 2009

Key Takeaway:  DuPont, which owns and operates the La Porte, Texas insecticide plant where four workers died on November 15th, positions itself as a global leader in worker safety. The company has earned hundreds of millions in revenue selling “Employee Safety Consulting” to other companies. 

Independent health and safety experts, however, have identified flaws in DuPont’s training programs, which are based on so-called ‘behavioral safety’ concepts. By focusing on individual action instead of engineering and process controls, experts say, DuPont’s approach:

  • Blames workers for their own workplace injuries and illnesses
  • Discourages reporting of workplace incidents
  • Increases the risk of workplace hazards – because unreported incidents cannot be investigated to determine causes steps for future prevention.

 Contacts for further information:

  • Mary Vogel, Executive Director, National COSH
  • Peter Dooley, Safety and Health Project Consultant, National COSH
  • Celeste Monforton, Professorial Lecturer, George Washington University (based in San Marcos, Texas)
  • Jim Howe, CSP, President, Safety Solutions (expertise in alternatives to behavior-based safety programs)
  • Nancy Lessin, United Steelworkers Tony Mazzocchi Center, Senior Staff for Strategic Initiatives

Please contact Roger Kerson at roger@rkcommunications.net,  734.645.0535 to schedule an interview.

Background:

Four workers died at a DuPont insecticide plant in La Porte, Texas after 100 pounds of the deadly chemical methyl mercaptan leaked inside the facility.  The La Porte factory, like other DuPont facilities, has been cited numerous times for environmental and health and safety violations.

Following the death of a worker at a DuPont chemical plant in West Virginia in 2010, for example the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) found “numerous safety deficiencies” at the operation.  This CSB video re-enacts the incident, in which a worker lost his life after exposure to phosgene, a deadly gas that was used as a chemical weapon during World War I. 

Despite such incidents, DuPont has positioned itself as a global leader in safety. The company earns significant revenue selling employee safety consulting services to other companies worldwide. 

  • At its 2004 annual shareholder meeting, DuPont claimed $100 million in revenues from selling its “Safety Training Observation Program (STOP)” to other firms.
  • In its 2013 annual report, “Employee Safety Consulting” is identified as part of DuPont’s Safety and Protection business unit. The business unit as a whole (which includes safety products as well as consulting services) accounted for 11% of DuPont’s annual segments sales of $36 billion, or $3.96 billion. 

Observers who have followed the company closely say DuPont’s claims about its safety expertise are not consistent with the company’s actual practices. The United Steelworkers told the U.S. Chemical Safety Board in 2012 that the company has “a history of worker injury, illness, death, as well as community, environmental and public health harm.” 

What is DuPont selling?

In 2011, Hazards magazine, a British publication focused on workplace safety, reported on “behavioural safety,” the concept underlying DuPont’s safety training program.  According to Hazards, DuPont’s STOP system is: 

“probably the most widely used behavioural safety programme in the world and the model for most of the rest.”  

Behavioral safety programs, however, are based on the discredited notion that workplace illnesses and injuries result from operator error. The concept is that workers are hurting themselves by failing to follow safety rules, and the way to fix the problem is to monitor and discipline workers for breaking rules and provide incentives for a “good” safety record – that is, no reported injuries or illnesses. 

This approach directly contradicts the hierarchy of controls developed by National Safety Council and incorporated into regulatory requirements by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  These procedures focus on management’s responsibility to eliminate hazards from the workplace where possible, and to limit exposure through engineering controls, training, shift rotation and other measures. 

As Hazards magazine explains: 

Behavioural safety systems replace responsible management of safety with ‘it’s your accident, it’s your injury and it’s your fault.’ 

The flawed theory that workers themselves are largely responsible for injuries leads to false measures of so-called “safety program success.” When workers are penalized for alleged “unsafe” behavior and rewarded financially for low rates of injury and illness, the predictable result is that injuries and illnesses are not reported. 

Workers laboring under these monitoring and incentive programs typically don’t say anything when they get hurt on the job, for fear of being disciplined and losing bonus money for themselves and their co-workers. 

As reported by the New York Times in 2009, workers at a DuPont facility in Tonawanda, New York, faced enormous pressure from management – and their peers – to not report injuries at work: 

 “You know that if you report an injury, everybody says, ‘You son of a bitch,’ ” said Dan Austin, who worked at the [DuPont Tonawanda, NY] plant for 30 years. “I’ve heard people say, ‘So-and-so reported an injury and it’s going to cost us our safety bucks this month.’ ”

 …At the DuPont plant here, workers face five progressive steps when they suffer repeated injuries deemed to be partly their own fault: verbal warning, written warning, probation, five-day suspension and dismissal.

“There’s like a philosophy that unless your arm is falling off, don’t tell anybody, take the pain, don’t go the emergency room,” said Jerry Graves, a DuPont machine operator who injured his thumb. “Say you smashed your finger with a hammer at home.”

How is DuPont’s “blame-the-worker” approach to industrial safety connected to the tragedy in Texas? 

What we don’t know (a partial list):

  • What were workers doing at the time of the incident, and what procedures were in place for this activity?
  • Is DuPont complying with requirements of Process Safety Management, the OSHA standard for facilities using toxic chemicals?
  • Were escape respirators provided at the La Porte facility, and if so why were the affected workers not protected?
  • Are workers at the La Porte plant incentivized, through bonuses or other mechanisms, to minimize reporting of injuries and illnesses?
  • What is the history of occupational illness and injury at this facility?
  • What kind of worker training is provided at the facility.
  • Have workers received medical treatment in the past for acute or ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals?
  • How much of the $3.96 billion in revenue for “Safety and Protection” earned by DuPont in 2013 is attributable to “Employee Safety Consulting”?

 Key Sources:

“This BS will kill you,” Hazards, July-September 2011

“In Workplace Injury System, Ill Will on All Sides,” New York Times, April 1, 2009

“NOT WALKING THE TALK: DuPont's Untold Safety Failures,” United Steelworkers, September 2005

“What are we to make of Safe Behaviour Programs,” A. Hopkins, Safety Science Volume 44, Issue 7, August 2006 

 

 

 

 

Share/Save