Blaming the coating contractor at Cabin Creek disaster is shortsighted

The fire and resultant loss of life that occurred at Cabin Creek nearly three years ago when MEK and epoxy paint flashed was one of the worst tragedies in our industry.

This week the US Chemical Safety and Hazardous investigation board released its evaluation of the incident. There was plenty of blame to go around, most of it directed at the coating contractor.

I do not argue that the contactor followed the proper procedures. I do argue that if all we do is blame the contractor more lives will be lost. The CSB identified 53 serious flammable atmosphere confined space incidents involving fires and explosions from 1993 to April 2010, most of them have occurred since 2003; and 57 percent involved a fatality.

We can do better than this.

Contractors have high turnover and there are many rules to follow, forms to file, new and existing hires to train and retrian. We forget that they have to make a profit to stay in business. We expect a contractor to get mostly transient employees, many of whom did not graduate from high school, to understand MSDS sheets and a host of OSHA procedures. It is challenging enough to get employees who work at the same job in the same plant day after day for years trained on the site specific safety rules. Contract employees often visit 30 sites in a single year, each with very specific site safety. We give these guys a 30 minute video while they have their coffee and pronounce them “trained”. We are kidding ourselves if we think 100% compliance is possible.

Many contracting firms are small businesses run by craftsmen who have limited training outside their craft. Instead of placing all the responsibility on the contractor wouldn’t it make more sense to manufacture coatings without low temperature flash points? Perhaps we can eliminate other hazardous chemicals in the process. Can we agree to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the Cabin Creek disaster by outlawing low flash point paints? The technology is already commercially available.