OSHA says worker death at factory in Massachusetts, US, could have been prevented

Article by Kerry Hebden

AN EXPLOSION that killed a worker at a pharmaceutical plant in Newburyport, Massachusetts, US, could have been prevented, the US’ Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have concluded. 

The incident at the Seqens plant, which occurred on 4 May, 2023, was caused when a pressure vessel used in the production and drying of a chemical product called Dekon 139 exploded, causing significant damage to a building, and sending a vat flying nine metres into a parking lot. The victim was later identified as 62-year-old Methuen resident Jack O’Keefe. 

OSHA’s investigation identified numerous deficiencies in the facility's process safety management programme for the highly hazardous chemical, and for combustible dust hazards. Some of the safeguarding measures missed by Seqens included: not determining the combustibility hazards of materials used in the Dekon 139 production process, exposing employees to fire and explosion hazards from combustible dust; not including safe upper and lower temperature limits to prevent the decomposition of Dekon 139; failing to evaluate the consequences of deviation in the Dekon 139 production process; and not updating standard operating procedures for producing Dekon 139 and its safety data sheet. 

OSHA cited Seqens on 11 violations, eight of which are serious, and proposed the firm pay US$298,254 in penalties. It has given the firm 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA's area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. 

Sarah Carle, OSHA’s area director in Andover, Massachusetts, said: “The requirements of OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard are stringent and comprehensive because failure to comply fully can have a severe or catastrophic impact on employees that, in this case, cost a worker their life. Employers must rigorously, completely, and continuously scrutinise, update and maintain each element of the process properly to identify and minimise hazards and protect workers’ safety and health.” 

Seqens operates 24 manufacturing plants and three research and development centres in North America, Europe, and Asia.  

Its Newburyport site is a chemical-processing facility that deals with the manufacturing, drying, packaging, and testing of active pharmaceutical intermediates and custom-synthesised chemicals. Part of the factory was ordered to be torn down by the City of Newburyport shortly after the explosion, which was the facility’s third incident since 2020. 

Newburyport mayor Sean Reardon said it was “very saddening to see that this incident was preventable”. 

In a statement, he said: “We will continue to collaborate with these partners to determine the best path forward, and to ensure that the neighbouring businesses, schools, and residences are kept safe from these dangerous practices that OSHA is penalising now.” 

According to the Associated Press, a spokesman for Seqens did not respond to a request for comment. 

Article by Kerry Hebden

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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