Baytown Sun; January 15, 2006

Baytown: Unclear procedures led to Bayer plant death

Federal inspectors determined that unclear operating procedures contributed to the June 18 death of contract employee Salvador Barba Sr. at the Bayer Material Sciences plastics manufacturing facility in Baytown.

Barba, 57, died while being flown by LifeFlight to Memorial Hermann Hospital after he was exposed to the corrosive chemical phenol in an early-morning accident. A 24-year employee of Halliburton subsidiary KBR, Barba had worked as a maintenance mechanic at the Bayer plant for 15 years.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor immediately launched an investigation of the incident. OSHA officially closed its investigation last week, after issuing the company two citations and a $5,000 fine in a settlement agreement.

OSHA rated the violations as "serious." According to the agency's Web site, a serious violation is one "where there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result and that the employer knew, or should have known, of the hazard." Penalties for a serious violation can range up to $7,000.

According to investigation documents obtained by The Baytown Sun, Barba had just completed disconnecting a modified sea container containing phenol from a pump used to flush catalyst to a bisphenol-A, or BPA, reactor. BPA is used in the manufacture of polycarbonates that are used in a wide range of industrial and consumer products.

This was the first use of this particular system, according to the documents.

Barba, who had been wearing full protective gear while performing the task, was showering in a decontamination shower when a pressure build-up on a pipe valve caused a gasket above the shower to fail, releasing the phenol, which "rained down upon" Barba, according to the documents.

According to the National Safety Council, very high concentrations of phenol, also called carbolic acid, can cause death if ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Barba tried to wash the phenol off himself in the safety shower, and other workers wearing protective gear moved him to another safety shower. Despite these and other steps, Barba died while being flown to Hermann Hospital.

A statement released by Bayer after the incident said there was no explosion, and at no time was there a danger of exposure to the public. According to the investigation documents, the pressure build-up was caused by the fact a valve that should have been opened during a step in the process of changing out the sea containers that contained the phenol was not opened.

Three workers were involved in performing different parts of the change-out procedure, according to the documents.

"The procedures were not clear in that operations could not know which operator had performed which step in the operating procedure," states an inspection worksheet. The lack of clarity in the written procedures led to the valve not being opened, creating high pressure within the system and the gasket rupture that caused the phenol release that killed Barba, according to the worksheet. According to the documents, the written procedures did not consider the potential effects of blocked valves within the system, which include high temperature and high pressure.

On Nov. 30, OSHA found that Bayer had violated two provisions of federal workplace safety regulations, and assessed a $5,000 fine for one of the violations. According to the documents, Bayer paid the fine on Dec. 13. The agency gave the company until Jan. 5 to abate, or rectify, the conditions that led to the violations.

Bayer spokeswoman Cherie Laughlin said Friday the company has not yet received word from OSHA that the agency has signed off on the abatement plan submitted by the company. Bayer site manager John Rocco said in a statement the company has made administrative and technical improvements and has "implemented the appropriate safeguards to prevent a future occurrence."

OSHA has recognized the Bayer Baytown facility as one of its Voluntary Protection Program STAR sites since 1999. A STAR site is "an exemplary worksite with comprehensive safety and health management systems," according to the OSHA Web site. Such workplaces have "achieved injury and illness rates at or below the national average of their respective industries," according to the Web site.

OSHA reevaluates STAR sites every three to five years, although incident rates are reviewed annually. In 2005, the plant and its contractors had a total recordable incident rate, which measures workplace injuries that must be reported to state and federal authorities, of 0.8, compared to the current industry average of 4.00, according to materials provided by Laughlin. (by Ken Fountain)