KINSTON, N.C. — The design of West Pharmaceutical's rubber parts factory was a key factor in a January 2003 explosion that destroyed the plant and killed six workers, federal investigators said Thursday.
U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board
issued a final report on the blast, saying its team has not been able to pin down the precise cause of the blast.
But it faulted the Lionville, Pa., based company, saying the blast could have been avoided if West Pharmaceutical had complied with a national fire code's controls on combustible dust for industrial plants.
"We believe that the accident probably could have been avoided had the company followed the dust-handling practices listed in the national Fire Protection Association's fire code," said John Bresland, of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
West said it has concluded that the explosion resulted from a combination of unforeseen factors and that the fire code did not apply when the plant and the section that exploded were built.
The chemical board reiterated its finding, announced five months after the accident, that something ignited combustible polyethylene dust that accumulated above a suspended ceiling, causing the explosion.
The report issued Thursday found four root causes of the accident:
Dust clean-up was a priority at the plant, but the rubber particles that exploded collected above a suspended ceiling and were not recognized as a serious hazard, the report said.
The investigators theorized that the explosion might have been caused by an overheated batch of rubber, a light fixture or an electrical fault, but said the extensive damage to the factory made it impossible to know for sure.
Three people were killed outright and three died later of their injuries, while 38 people were injured.
The CSB is an independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents. It doesn't issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations.
It urged North Carolina to force companies statewide to comply with recommendations in the National Fire Code for controlling combustible dust.
"If the good safety practices described in the National Fire Code and elsewhere had been followed at West, this tragic accident would likely have been avoided," said lead investigator Steve Selk.
West noted that the CSB still hasn't been able to name the exact cause of the blast.
"The CSB has criticized West for not complying with a fire code standard that was not applicable to the construction of this facility and it is not clear to West from the CSB report that such a change would have prevented the accident," the company said in a prepared statement.