The detonation of certain volatile industrial chemicals can cause serious bodily injury, death, and significant property damage in the workplace and possibly over a larger area. Tons of potentially explosive chemicals are stored in workplaces across North Carolina.
Depending on its size, a chemical storage explosion could create a significant fire, a major local problem requiring evacuations, or a national tragedy. People who are burned, maimed or otherwise injured in a chemical explosion may require extensive medical care and never fully recover physically or psychologically.
North Carolina employers and employees who store and handle explosive materials accept a great responsibility. Tragic explosions can be avoided by building proper storage magazines and by following good safety and security procedures. If you are injured in a workplace explosion, you may be entitled to worker’s compensation benefits or to seek compensation through civil action.
How Chemical Explosions Happen
After a massive explosion ripped through downtown Beirut, Lebanon, on August 4, 2020, Scientific American asked experts to explain how the Beirut explosion could have happened. Rachel Lance, a blast injury specialist, explored the chemistry and history of similar explosions for Wired magazine.
Reports about the explosion in Beirut indicate that it was caused by 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse. Ammonium nitrate is a chemical routinely used as agricultural fertilizer. When mixed with fuel oil, it is used as a mining explosive. It has also been experimented with as rocket fuel.
Lance described how unstable substances combined in chemicals at rest still have excess energy to release.
Russell Ogle, a fire and explosion investigator, told Scientific American that the main trigger for the release of this energy is an external heat source, frequently a fire. When heated by a large heat source like a fire, chemicals like ammonium nitrate will begin to decompose and release energy. When oxygen super-charges that release and/or pressure bottles it up until it breaches its containment, you have an explosion.
A U.S. Naval weapons engineering text explains that there are many chemical reactions that will release energy. If the reaction proceeds slowly, the released energy is dissipated and there will be few noticeable effects other than an increase in temperature. If the reaction proceeds very rapidly, the energy is not dissipated. The rapid release of energy expands hot gases to create a shock wave and explosion, propelling fragments of containers outward at high speed.
A History of Chemical Explosions
There have been multiple noteworthy accidental ammonium nitrate explosions. In April 2013, a stockpile a tenth the size of the one in Beirut blew up a West Chemical and Fertilizer Company facility in Texas, killing 15 people and injuring 160.
The Associated Press lists several more recent chemical plant explosions:
- A pair of chemical plant explosions in December 2019 led to a voluntary evacuation order for Port Neches, Texas, a coastal city of roughly 13,000 people.
- A chemical plant explosion in southeastern Kansas in November 2016 led to possible contamination of the water supply and discontinuation of water service to a nearby northeastern Oklahoma city.
- A June 2013 petrochemical plant explosion in south Louisiana left two people dead and caused 167 injuries. In November 2016, a jury awarded a total of $16 million to four workers injured in the blast.
Chemical Storage Best Practices
The storage of explosive materials is regulated by the N.C. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of the Treasury. Any organization storing hazardous chemicals should have written policy requiring compliance with all federal, state, and local regulations governing the management and disposal of hazardous materials.
Because of the varying risks posed by volatile chemicals, it is necessary to identify and categorize all chemicals a business handles and to store properly and track chemical products in use within the organization.
Best practices for chemical storage include:
- Strict and consistent adherence to proper labeling of containers. Containers should bear a manufacturer’s label with information about the products’ proper use, interactions with other chemicals and hazards.
- Storing properly labeled chemicals according to the risk they present. All chemicals with a HMIS rating of 2 (moderate) or higher and chemicals that are labeled with the word “Warning” or “Danger” or “Flammable” present a significant enough risk to require storage in secure areas under a system of controlled issuance and accountability.
- All stored chemicals should have their corresponding Safety Data Sheet (SDS) readily accessible at the location(s) where they are stored. Safety Data Sheets are required by government regulation for all hazardous chemical substances produced and/or sold in the United States. The use of all hazardous materials should be consistent with the provisions and precautions listed in the Safety Data Sheet. Each SDS should contain information including but not necessarily limited to:
- Identity of the chemical as used on the label
- Physical and health hazards
- Physical and chemical characteristics
- First Aid measures
- Firefighting measures
- Accidental release measures
- Safe handling and storage
- Exposure control / personal protection
- Stability and reactivity
- Name, address, phone number of the manufacturer, importer, or another responsible party, and emergency phone number.
- A perpetual inventory of these products should be maintained in the primary storage area for general control.
- All locations where chemicals are stored and/or issued from should have appropriate inventory issue logs, as well as personal protective equipment. Caustic, flammable, and highly poisonous chemicals should be maintained under lock and key.
- Chemicals must be drawn/issued to trained individuals by staff who are authorized by the facility head and used according to manufacturer’s instruction.
Ways We Can Help Beirut
Many of us would like to help the people who have been harmed by the explosion in Beirut. CharityWatch, an independent watchdog organization that gauges how charities use donations they receive, says the best way to help is by sending a check or donating securely by credit card. Such cash donations enable charities to buy the most needed types of food, medicine, clothing, shelter materials, and other supplies locally and avoid shipping costs.
CharityWatch lists 16 top-rated charities providing relief for the victims of the explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. Among them is Samaritan’s Purse, which is headquartered in Boone, North Carolina, and which Charity Watch gives a grade of A–.
How a Workers’ Comp Lawyer Can Help After A Chemical Explosion
A worker injured in a chemical explosion while on the job likely qualifies for workers’ compensation benefits. If some party other than the injured worker’s employer was responsible for the chemicals or the explosion, the injured worker may be able to pursue a third-party personal injury claim for compensation in addition to what North Carolina’s workers’ compensation program pays.
The attorneys at Hardison & Cochran, Attorneys at Law can assist you with a workers’ compensation claim and/or a personal injury claim if you have been injured in a chemical explosion in North Carolina. Contact us for a free initial legal consultation.