Thursday, August 07, 2003

Workplace Tragedies/Union Action Produce NJ Reactive Chemical Protections

The New Jersey rule to protect workers and communities against catastrophes caused by reactive chemicals that I wrote about a couple of days ago was a result of two workplace disasters and strategic organizing by unions and environmentalists.
Eight years after the notorious Napp Technologies explosion in Lodi and five years after another blast in Paterson, New Jersey is becoming the first state in the nation to regulate the potentially explosive chemicals blamed in both incidents.

Chemicals not regulated as hazardous materials were inadvertently mixed in a vat at Lodi plant, causing an explosion that killed five workers, injured 41, and forced 300 residents to be evacuated. Similarly, ingredients were incorrectly mixed at Morton International's dye manufacturing subsidiary, with the reaction injuring nine employees and rocking homes 15 blocks away.

Both catastrophes prompted calls from unions and environmentalists for regulation of such "reactive chemicals" - substances not considered hazardous on their own but which can become volatile if exposed to air or water, or mixed with the wrong ingredient.
As a result of these and other explosions caused by reactive chemicals, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has recommended that OSHA and EPA issue federal regulations. But the Bush administration has refused to act on the CSB's recommendations.
Without regulations like these, workers and people living in the surrounding communities are at risk from the kind of runaway reactions these kind of chemicals can have," Poje said.

Current regulation forces a company to give special training only to employees handling substances that are hazardous on their own, such as chlorine or ammonia.

So workers don't know the potential dangers of lesser-known chemicals such as ethyl nitrate and potassium hydrosulfite, "and they don't know to respond if there is an incident," Poje said. He noted that workers did not immediately evacuate after the accident at the Morton plant because the dangers were unknown to them.