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Safety

Explosion at Airgas facility in Florida kills one worker

Chemical Safety Board and Occupational Safety & Health Administration are investigating the incident

by Jyllian Kemsley
September 1, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 35

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Credit: John Blackie/Pensacola News Journal
A plume with the reddish-brown color characteristic of nitrogen dioxide rises above the Airgas facility after a fatal explosion involving nitrous oxide tanks.
Credit: John Blackie/Pensacola News Journal
A plume with the reddish-brown color characteristic of nitrogen dioxide rises above the Airgas facility after a fatal explosion involving nitrous oxide tanks.

Federal safety officials are investigating an explosion at an Airgas production facility in Cantonment, Fla. that killed a worker.

A preliminary investigation by the Florida State Fire Marshal showed that a nitrous oxide holding tank and two tankers in a loading bay were involved in the Aug. 28 explosion, says Jon Moore, a spokesperson for the fire marshal’s office. Investigators were not able to determine whether the explosion originated with the N2O holding tank and tankers or it originated elsewhere and spread to the N2O equipment, Moore says.

The fire marshal has turned the investigation over to the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration. “We have deployed a team of compliance officers,” Brian Sturtecky, director of OSHA’s Jacksonville area office, told C&EN on Sept. 1. “Right now, the priority is ensuring that the site is safe for any and all employees and inspectors. Once that is determined, we will proceed with a more in-depth investigation.”

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has also deployed to the accident site. CSB is investigating because of the fatality and reported serious damage to the site, says spokesperson Hillary Cohen. In addition, CSB is concerned about the potential for more serious consequences, given the facility’s location in an industrial area and proximity to another company that uses pressurized gas spheres and tanks to store petroleum products.

The Airgas facility is located adjacent to Ascend Performance Materials. No one at Ascend was hurt and site operations there are continuing, the company says in a statement.

Ascend produces the nylon precursor adipic acid at the site, Ascend spokesperson Alison Jahn says. N2O is a by-product of adipic acid production. Ascend provides a mixture of gases to Airgas, and Airgas uses the mixture to make N2O, Jahn says.

The incident marks the first time CSB is investigating Airgas.

The company has been subject to 37 OSHA inspections in the past five years, 11 of which resulted in a total of 22 citations, according to OSHA data. The most recent violation was at a South Carolina facility and involved safety appliances for compressed air receivers, OSHA says.

Airgas was purchased by Air Liquide earlier this year.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of a member of our Airgas family,” the company says in a statement. “An investigation into the cause of the incident is under way and the facility remains closed at this time,” Airgas adds. The company declined to comment further.

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