(Editor’s note: Terry Boyd and Brian Tucker contributed to this post.)
Six weeks after the March 21 explosion that killed two Carbide Industries workers, there is no report – official or unofficial – available to the public about what happened at the Rubbertown plant.
Carbide Industries officials have stated they’re doing their own investigation.
After an analysis of state records, that wouldn’t be much of a departure from the norm in Kentucky.
After a January 2007 accident in which a worker suffered second-degree burns requiring skin grafts, state records indicate that Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health officials likely never returned to Carbide Industries until the two men were killed in the March explosion. (See YouTube video here of the fire.)
This, in spite of several smaller-scale accidents and injuries within the aging facility.
Though narrow in scope and limited in time, state records acquired by Insider Louisville under the federal Freedom of Information Act portray Carbide Industries as a hazardous workplace, an industrial facility where almost one out of five workers were injured in 2005.
Safety reports and other documents covering 2005 to 2007 released to Insider Louisville under a April 13 FOIA request indicate that problems at the plant were widespread.
Then, after March 2007, there are no more records, according to Kentucky Labor Cabinet officials.
It’s unclear why Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health officials have no documents after that date.
David Suetholz, Kentucky Labor Cabinet general council, said the most likely explanation is that there were no accidents or workplace safety violations at Carbide Industries after that date.
But in 2009, according to multiple media reports, a fire of unknown origin forced the evacuation of the plant. Two Louisville firefighters suffered burns from the carbide powder and were transported to the hospital – an incident that is not mentioned in any documents released to Insider Louisville.
A major 2006 incident at Carbide Industries occurred when 500 gallons of hydrochloric acid leaked out a holding tank, resulting in a “Level 2″ Hazardous Materials warning for the neighborhood. A vapor cloud “headed toward downtown,” according to the report. Alarms sounded in the surrounding neighborhood and no injuries were reported.
Suetholz also pointed out that the state has a total of 38 OSH inspectors assigned to all industrial sites and some farms in Kentucky’s 120 counties.
So, in a state where local health departments manage to check thousands of restaurants for food safety practices, an industrial site where employees work with dangerous materials apparently went uninspected for more than four years until March 21, 2011.
That day, Steven Nichols, 59, of Charlestown, Ind., and Jorge “Louie” Medina, 56, of Louisville, died. Both men worked in the furnace area where calcium carbide is made from heating quick lime and coke, a product of coal, at 2,000-degrees Fahrenheit.
A fire burned on for several days because if calcium carbide is sprayed with water, it produces potentially explosive gases such as acetylene. If calcium carbide gets on skin, then is exposed to moisture, it burns at temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to state safety documents.
Sources tell Insider Louisville there were multiple problems with the furnace, which they say had been in place past its recommended replacement schedule.
State officials declined to make available a report on the March 21 accident, stating the report “is not releasable” because it is still incomplete six weeks after the event.
No one overseeing the CI plant would go on the record including union leaders. Sources told Insider Louisville they cannot comment by name because of fear.
“Anything that makes it harder for them to rebuild the place makes it more likely that (Carbide Industries executives) would simply choose not to,” said one source.
Closing the plant would result in the loss of more than 100 jobs.
Calls to John Gant, CI plant manager, were not returned.
Calls to Larry Windler at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were not returned.
Calls to Mike Moses with the Service Employees International Union were not returned.
Calls to Tony Lee, SEIU chief steward, were not returned.
However, records released to Insider Louisville document repeated issues and high rates of worker injuries.
For example, in 2006, the plant employed 160 people who worked an aggregate total of 310,000 hours.
In that year, there were 14 injuries for a 9 percent injury rate.
By comparison, UPS had more than 650 employees who worked an aggregate total of 1.2 million hours in 2006, with 22 injuries reported for a 3 percent injury rate.
Compared to 2005, 2006 was a good year at Carbide Industries.
During 2005, Carbide Industries recorded 18 injuries among 112 total employees for a 16-percent injury rate. According to an OSHA Form 300A summary of work related injuries and illnesses released to Insider Louisville under FOIA, Carbide Industries officials reported 265 total days away from work for two-thirds of a year of labor lost to injuries.
That included a “steam explosion,” after which an injured employee was off from work for 9 days, as well as two separate accidents that left three workers with second-degree burns.
Because the plant produces calcium carbide, which is itself a very reactive substance, working at Carbide Industries is inherently dangerous, which the final documented accident makes clear.
But what those documents also make clear is the plant has a history of poor housekeeping and “casual” training.
These are the fact as documented:
On Jan 15, 2007 an employee with two months on the job stepped into a pile of “bag house material,” the calcium oxide, or quick lime, used to make calcium carbide. Calcium oxide reacts with water and causes severe burns in contact with skin.
“Casual factors” such as poor housekeeping “and no standard operating procedure for this task” were noted in the accident report filed by the company.
“When the dust gets wet, it heats up anything it’s on to in excess of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit,” states a form filed by a state inspector.
“The employee had been trained on the hazard and told not to step onto piles of the dust, but did so anyway,” according to the inspectors after-action report.
“The temperature of the dust is 1,340 degrees according to thermograph readings taken by company after the incident.
It was one of the injured employee’s first days working on his own, the report notes. The man required multiple skin graphs and was in the hospital from January 15 to January 21, according to documents.
The OSH inspector was not able to get in touch with the injured employee till March 8, more than six weeks after the accident.
“The employee told the inspector the pile didn’t look harmful,” states the after-action report.
No citations were recommended by state inspectors and no inspectors ever went back.
This is from the Kentucky Labor Cabinet website: The mandate of the Kentucky Labor Cabinet under the Kentucky Revised Statutes (hereinafter T“KRS”) 336 et seq. is to protect the working women and men of Kentucky and to promote harmonious industrial relations.
The majority of our work is the prosecution of wage and hour, prevailing wage and occupational safety and health violations. Our office is currently staffed by fourteen dedicated women and men who regularly field questions from Cabinet staff and the general public. We strive to accomplish the goal of Secretary Gray and Governor Beshear to promote healthy working environments and to assist Kentucky’s employers in reaching that goal. Though we are the prosecutors for violations of the laws listed above, we try to provide clear interpretations of Kentucky’s labor laws so that the important businesses of the Commonwealth can avoid infractions.
The current General Counsel is David O’Brien Suetholz, a labor lawyer from Northern Kentucky who represented labor organizations throughout the Commonwealth. The goal of the Office of the General Counsel is to provide impeccable legal advice to the Secretary of Labor as well as vigorous prosecution for violations of Kentucky’s labor laws.