According to the plant and refinery accident injury lawyer practicing in Houston, the majority of refinery and chemical plant explosions are due to one of four general causes:
(1) Impure or “dirty” chemicals
(2) Improperly maintained equipment
(3) Improperly stored precursor and end-products
(4) Human error by poorly-trained employees
Impure or “dirty” chemicals
Modern refineries and chemical plants are set up to use substances of high purity. The necessary purity is obtained by “cleaning” or “scrubbing” impurities using various chemical and physical processes. If impurities remain, they can contaminate the refining or manufacturing process and produce a defective product. In some cases, “dirty” chemicals may create a chain of events that can lead to a fire or an explosion.
Improperly maintained equipment
The equipment used in chemical plants and refineries is designed to operate efficiently only at predetermined conditions such as internal temperature and pressure. Such equipment must be kept as clean as possible and recalibrated periodically. Since taking equipment “offline” for routine maintenance can disrupt a plant’s production schedule, some chemical manufacturers may not follow the equipment’s recommended maintenance and calibration schedule. If an explosion or fire occurs at or near such equipment, the first things that investigators will check are its maintenance and cleaning records.
Improperly stored precursors and end-products
A “precursor” is a substance that, when it reacts with another substance or is subjected to a chemical or mechanical process, is transformed into an “end-product” (a substance having an economic value). For example, consider how crude oil (the precursor) can be refined into gasoline (the end-product) and other substances that may be precursors to other products.
Since many precursors can become chemically unstable if stored in the wrong type of container, in too warm or humid an environment, or exposed to vapors given off by other substances, various federal and state agencies have established strict regulations regarding how chemicals are stored. If an explosion or a fire involving one of these substances occurs, it may be taken as a sign that chemical safety regulations we not been observed.
Human error by poorly-trained employees
Even though more and more chemical plants are moving toward greater use of computers and robotics, human employees must monitor each stage of the manufacturing process. In many cases, these employees are trained “on the job” to perform a specific task or a series of tasks and know very little about what goes on in other plant sections. In the event of an accident or critical incidents such as a fire or a chemical leak, poorly-trained employees can be more of a hindrance than an asset.