The explosion occurred in a section of the plant that had been shut down for maintenance when workers are thought to have pumped too much nitrogen into a vessel, causing it to rupture. The company has said that there was no fire or chemical release and there is no threat or hazard posed to the community near the plant.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is now conducting one of three investigations at the plant to uncover the exact cause, running plant officials through emergency drills. CF Industries Holdings is conducting its own investigation and has also hired a third party to investigate the causes of the accident.
OSHA issued a six-figure fine against the plant in 2000 after an explosion in an ammonia unit killed three workers and injured eight, according to WBRZ. The plant in Geismar hadn’t been inspected by OSHA in at least two decades, according to OSHA’s online database. The Geismar plant experienced another accident in 2009 when 60 pounds of flammable mixture was released, causing a fire that didn’t lead to injuries. Louisiana has experienced at least two other explosions in chemical facilities in the last two years.
Last week’s blasts came months after the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas that killed 15 people and injured more than 160. The West plant hadn’t been inspected by OSHA since 1985.
OSHA inspections are few and far between thanks to a perennial lack of funding and difficulty retaining staff. The average workplace only gets a visit from inspectors every 99 years. Sequestration will make things worse, with cuts to the agency’s budget likely resulting in 1,200 fewer workplace inspections.
Yet thousands of people die in workplace accidents every year. In just 2007, there were 5,600 fatal workplace injuries and 53,000 fatal illnesses, plus 8,559,000 nonfatal injuries and 427,000 nonfatal illnesses. These accidents cost society huge sums thanks to medical and indirect expenses: $250 billion for the injuries and illnesses in 2007 alone.
Meanwhile, thousands of chemical plants across the country pose risks to big populations. Nearly 7,000 facilities report that a worst-case scenario would pose a risk to populations over 1,000 people and 90 plants could impact more than 1 million.