A massive fire at a Chemtool plant in Rockton, Illinois, has cast a spotlight on chemical fires.
The exact cause of the explosion and resulting fire is pending investigation, but the event highlights the importance of chemical fire prevention.
Chemtool is the largest manufacturer of grease in the United States. The company takes part in the Tier II program, annual federal report that is mandatory for companies that store hazardous materials, according to the office of Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker. It, like many other industrial facilities across the globe, contains many hazardous chemicals that can erupt in flames or explode.
As the focus of the Chemtool fire shifts from fire suppression to recovery and cleanup, the focus for industrial facilities across the globe must now shift to prevention.
What is a chemical fire?
A chemical fire is a flame that begins when a chemical reaction ignites a solid, liquid or gas chemical compound. These fires are incredibly dangerous and can cause severe and fatal burns and destroy most living and material things in their path.
Just like other fires, chemical fires operate under the fire triangle. They need fuel, oxygen and heat to burn. But chemical fires are more likely to explode, depending on the chemicals in question. Heat, shock waves, smoke, and airborne debris can injure workers nearby.
These fires are most common in chemical plants that work with flammable products such as fuel, acrylic acid, and crude oil. When these chemicals encounter an ignition source, fire or combustion can result.
There were only minor injuries in the massive explosion at Chemtool. All 70 workers evacuated the building safely and just two firefighters suffered minor injuries. Other companies have not been as lucky.
In 2010, an explosion at Kleen Energy Systems’ power plant in Middletown, Connecticut, killed six people and injured 50 others. The massive natural gas explosion also netted $16.6 million in penalties from OSHA for an alleged 370 workplace violations.
Are chemical fires preventable?
OSHA reports most chemical plant accidents are preventable. “Good safety practices, frequent maintenance and clear documentation all go a long way toward preventing most chemical plant disasters,” reports the OSHA FAQ Page on Chemical Plant Safety.
The 2013 Williams Olefins plant explosion in Geismar, Louisiana, offers a prime example. Experts attribute this explosion that killed two workers and injured 114 others to poor communication and unsafe equipment.
OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety Hazard Investigation Board examined why a heat exchanger failed at this chemical plant. They found a standby heat exchanger had filled with hydrocarbon. The plant design isolated the heat exchanger from its pressure relief. After heating with hot water, hydrocarbon inside the heat exchanger flashed to vapor, causing it to rupture and explode.
Here a neglected $5 piece of equipment and a safer procedure could have saved lives. OSHA cited Williams Olefins for six process safety management standard violations and proposed a $99,000 fine.
How can employers prevent chemical fires?
Technology represents the first line of defense against chemical plant disasters. Carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems, proper ventilation, well-maintained safety valves and other safety features go a long way toward prevention.
Another major component of prevention comprises knowing the safety information for every chemical on site. Manufacturers put material safety data sheets (MSDS) on all chemical products. These documents contain information on the potential health effects of exposure and on safe working procedures when handling chemical products. MSDS also lists safe use, storage, handling and emergency procedures related to that material.
Once companies identify chemicals on site, it’s vital to store flammable liquids properly. OSHA requires proper containment of hazardous materials to protect the environment from contamination and employees who work in areas that store and use hazardous materials.
The organization provides standards for storing chemicals. For example, firms must store flammable liquids in approved containers away from exits, stairways or other areas where people pass through. OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard (29 CFR 1910.1200) requires companies to label storage tanks with their contents. Doing so enables first responders to recognize the hazards and implement emergency actions.
Though not required, OSHA also advises facilities to keep track of portable containers holding hazardous chemicals. Knowing where portable containers are helps companies’ direct emergency responders to their location during an incident.
It’s also necessary to control all ignition sources. Unless companies intentionally heat the flammable materials, they should keep ignition sources as far away as possible from them.
Companies can identify chemicals and storage requirements through a process hazard analysis (PHA). This review, done every five years, can identify and analyze potential hazards associated with the processing and handling of hazardous chemicals. The PHA team must analyze potential causes and consequences of fires, explosions, releases of toxic or flammable chemicals and major spills of hazardous chemicals, then recommend safeguards to control identified hazards and mitigate their effects.
Safeguards may include passive approaches to hazard control or engineering controls designed to improve fire detection and suppression. They may even include administrative controls such as new operating procedures, inventory control measures, or separating hazardous chemicals into different storage areas.
Remember to Train Employees
Ignorance can lead to deadly accidents. Employee training and a safety culture also offer a strong defense against chemical fires.
OSHA requires safety training for all employees and keeping records of this training. If employers do not train workers, OSHA will hold them liable for accidents and injuries caused by their employees. The training must emphasize employee safety and safety operating procedures and should include information regarding emergency procedures and health hazards related to the work.
Further, OSHA requires companies to offer refresher training every three years, and even sooner if processes or procedures change. Refresher training reminds employees of the safety procedures related to their jobs and ensures they practice them.
Develop a Plan
Even when companies dot all their Is and cross all their Ts, they still may experience a chemical fire. Here, response must be second nature and pre-planned.
OSHA requires an emergency action plan, employee alarm system, employee training on the plan, and provisions for reviewing the plan.
The plan should detail procedures for reporting emergencies, handling small releases, emergency evacuations, accounting for evacuated employees, and procedures for employees who perform rescue or medical duties. You can find a list of contacts for employees with specific duties and responsibilities at https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.120.
The preplan also should include coordinating with local first responders and performing practice drills with them.
Analyzing hazards, safely storing chemicals, installing fire detection and suppression equipment, training employees and preplanning disasters cannot eliminate all chemical fire risks. But the company that diligently practices these measures can limit loss of life and injuries, and property loss, when disaster strikes.