Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Must Read: Workplace Widow Fights For The Truth

This is an amazing story of a woman, Julie GarIbay, whose husband died grusomely and unnecessarily in a chemical plant explosion, but has refused to settle with the company for a large sum of money because they required that the their report on the accident be kept secret. As the author, Mike Carter writes: "Garibay sued Advanced Silicon Materials not just for money, but for answers."
While the families of others injured or killed in the accident entered into secret settlements, and were paid undisclosed amounts, Garibay refused any deal that required secrecy. She wanted people to know the whole story of why her husband died.

"These men and women go out there to work for their families and no one tells them it's not safe," she explained. "It was supposed to be safe. They said it was safe. But it wasn't, and I want people to know."
The accident was cruel -- and shouldn't have happened:
The men were working outside on an eight-story, refinerylike structure where sandlike material was heated to 1,000 degrees, the first step in making silane gas, needed to create computer chips.

It was cool and misty as Garibay and [Rick]Rios used a high-pressure nitrogen hose to clear a plugged line. Both were covered in grime when they finished.

[Roy] Long and Lohr, meantime, performed routine maintenance above on the fifth-story gangway that wound through the tower's forest of pipes and reactors. Garibay and Rios climbed the metal stairway to join them.

Snaking through the tower was a 6-inch carbon-steel pipe, Pipe 2142, that carried a high-pressure blend of silicon tetrachloride, hydrogen and trichlorosilane at nearly 400 degrees.

All of these chemicals are dangerous, but the silicon compounds are particularly toxic, reacting violently with air and moisture to form an acid that attacks metal, lungs, skin and eyes with equal ferocity.

Unknown to Garibay and his co-workers, Pipe 2142 carried something else: an unintended stream of microscopic grit. Over the past 12 years, this streaming grit had worn the bend in an elbow joint paper-thin.

Rios was standing about 30 feet from Pipe 2142 when it burst. In seconds, more than 18 tons of those chemicals were released, exploding in the moist night air into a massive acid vapor cloud that would scour paint off cars nearly two miles away.

"It was like somebody fired a rifle right next to my head," Rios said. "I turned and saw a long blue flame and heard a roaring, like one of those superjets, and then I was in a cloud, a really warm, musty, thick cloud.

"Right away, you could feel it on your skin, like heat."

All four men ran pell-mell for the single column of stairs leading off the tower. Already they were choking as the acid burned their lungs, throats and eyes.

Rios passed Lohr, who was tearing a useless respirator off his face. The men tripped over one another as they stumbled through the blinding cloud.

Rios ran into Long, who was hung up on the railing by his belt. "I pulled him off and started moving again," he said. At the bottom of the stairs, Rios saw Garibay, missing his hardhat, kneeling.

Another worker loaded Garibay onto a cart and rolled him to a nearby maintenance building, where chaotic first-aid and decontamination efforts took place.

Garibay was on all fours near some showers, Rios said. "Deme was moaning. I yelled to him, 'Just don't fall asleep!'"


Deme Garibay survived 38 days after the accident, most of them in a drug-induced coma. His lungs were so badly damaged that any movement exhausted him. His eyes were burned beyond hope.
Roy Long died near the end of 1998, Rios was relased with scarred lungs and blurred vision. Lohr is a candidate for a lung transplant.

Washington state OSHA found six safety violations and fined the company $35,000. Advanced Microsystems also investigated the accident, but kept its report secret, claiming trade secrets would be revealed.
The company's fears about releasing the report were not just based on protecting trade secrets. The report contained "several extremely self-critical statements that could very easily be taken out of context and given 'sound bite' treatment," Advanced Silicon's former president, Michael Kerschen, would later state in a sworn declaration filed in Grant County Superior Court.

If made public, those statements "could easily be portrayed as demonstrating that [the company] fails to put a proper focus on, or devote sufficient resources to mechanical integrity and reliability" and drive customers away, Kerschen added.

The company settled with the three plaintiffs in 2002 for undisclosed sums of money and promises they would never discuss the details of the settlement. By then, Julie Garibay had sued for wrongful death and been offered "six figures" to settle the case, said her lawyer, Jerry Pearson. A lawyer for the company, Stephen Kennedy, insisted that the figure was higher.


Kennedy has argued that corporate secrecy actually protects the public.

Otherwise "companies will be less aggressive and less self-critical if they believe that the results of their investigation will later be widely disseminated," Kennedy wrote.
Despite the fact that the report has not yet been made public, the basic causes of the accident are known.
The plant's original design was flawed, management was inattentive and the company had not complied with several key state and federal safety standards for hazardous chemicals.

Perhaps most telling, the plant had just begun inspecting its miles of pipes a week before the accident that killed Deme Garibay — even though the inspections had been required by law for six years. A consultant hired by the company warned it in 1995 that it was far out of compliance with those basic standards.

In its most serious finding, the state said the company had acted in "poor faith" by failing to adequately follow up on the consultant's recommendations.

The state also said Advanced Silicon should have known that fine particles and liquids were ravaging the pipe, particularly since contaminant grit had previously been found downstream from the elbow in Pipe 2142. The grit eventually eroded the elbow to the thickness of four sheets of paper.

"Knowing how a pipe's contents affect the pipe is a basic fundamental requirement," investigators wrote.

It's a long story, but the main point is that Garibay is losing in court. Workers comp laws generally prevent workers and their families from companies for on-the-job injuries, illnesses or fatalities. In order to get around workers comp in Washington,
the employer had to have "actual knowledge that an injury was certain to occur and willfully disregard that knowledge."

Based on that language, Advanced Silicon argued that the company had to know it would kill Deme Garibay in order for his wife to prevail.
On that basis, Julie Garibay's suit was dismissed by the court, as was a previous wrongful death suit and a suit against the state for not enforcing inspectoins of the plant's pipes. Both cases are on appeal.
So Julie Garibay, who took her chances turning down a private deal, came up empty, again.

"Money wouldn't change anything," she now says. "I look at my daughter and ask myself, 'When she grows up, what am I going to tell her? That I took the deal?' I don't think so."
Read the whole thing.