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A Tale of Triumph and Tragedy: A Comprehensive Overview of AB Specialty Silicones

Riding the Waves of Global Demand and Contending with Catastrophic Disasters

Key Takeaways:

  • AB Specialty Silicones, born from a merger in 2012, had experienced significant growth by 2018, leading to increased production capabilities.
  • The company faced a tragic explosion in 2019 at its manufacturing plant in Waukegan, Illinois, resulting in four fatalities and multiple violations identified by OSHA.
  • Regulatory gaps and insufficient safety measures are believed to have contributed to the devastating incident.
  • The repercussions of the explosion highlight the pressing need for comprehensive safety measures in high-risk industries.

The Formation and Rise of AB Specialty Silicones

Formed from the union of Anderson and Associates and BRB USA in 2012, AB Specialty Silicones emerged as a frontrunner in the silicone products industry. Despite a humble beginning with a workforce of merely 88 individuals, the company has operated around the clock to produce a variety of silicone-based items, ranging from personal care products and roof coatings to adhesives, sealants, and coatings for other industries.

To keep pace with the rising global demand for its products, AB Specialty Silicones undertook a significant plant expansion in 2018 at its facility in Waukegan, Illinois. The expansion included a new reactor to enhance the company’s specialty fluid production capabilities and tripled its storage capacity for raw materials and finished products.

The Waukegan Plant: A Structural Overview

AB Specialty Silicones’ Waukegan plant boasted an intricate design aimed at accommodating the various components of the company’s diverse product line. The plant was divided into a high bay and low bay, each dedicated to the production of different chemicals.

Ventilation was primarily provided through vents in the low bay, while the high bay was equipped with two exhaust fans that were not continuously running but had to be manually activated. The two sections shared a ventilation system, a design aspect that would later be scrutinized in the aftermath of a catastrophic incident. Notably, at the time of this incident, the facility lacked functioning hydrogen gas or flammable gas detection systems.

The 2019 Plant Explosion: A Tragedy Unfolding

May 3, 2019, marked a dark day in the history of AB Specialty Silicones as an explosion at its Waukegan manufacturing plant claimed the lives of four workers. The immediate aftermath was chaotic, and as the dust settled, the quest for answers began.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) stepped in to investigate, eventually issuing 12 willful violations and levying fines totaling $1,591,176 against the company. OSHA’s use of the term “willful violation” suggested that the company had either knowingly failed to comply with safety regulations or had displayed indifference towards employee safety. However, these fines paled in comparison to the immense suffering endured by the workers’ families and the collective trauma of the entire workforce.

A Closer Look at the Causes

A subsequent investigation by the US Chemical Safety Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) provided further insights into the causes of the explosion. The CSB, a scientific investigation organization, determined that AB Specialty Silicones was responsible for the incident due to willful negligence, though its findings held no legal consequences for the company’s management.

A critical factor contributing to the explosion was the plant’s handling and storage of certain chemical products. The company was manufacturing a silicon hydride (SiH) emulsion called EM 652, using a raw material known as XL10, a type of SiH compound. Both these compounds could produce explosive amounts of hydrogen gas under specific conditions, posing significant risks.

The investigation found that the manufacturing process of the EM 652 product lacked dedicated equipment and failed to mitigate potential hazards. The tanks used in the production were not completely sealable, exposing the process to constant contamination risks. These tanks also lacked a system to ventilate the flammable hydrogen gas used in the process.

The layout of the plant, its shared ventilation system, and the absence of hydrogen gas detection systems all compounded these risks. Workers routinely opening the tanks for visual inspections were especially at risk from the flammable gases due to the company’s disregard for established safety measures.

The Larger Implications: Regulatory Gaps and Worker Safety

The tragedy at the Waukegan plant brought to light the chilling realities of the capitalist profit system. Workers’ safety was seemingly compromised for cost-cutting measures, leading to inadequate equipment, maintenance, and safety measures.

The investigation underscored regulatory gaps in chemical handling and safety regulations. The quantities of chemical products stored on-site by AB Specialty Silicones did not meet the threshold for regulation under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Risk Management Plan (RMP) program or OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard.

Regulatory bodies such as OSHA and the EPA have often been criticized for favoring businesses, potentially contributing to the creation of hazardous conditions for workers. However, subsequent funding cuts to these organizations have led to a decrease in protections offered to workers over time.

Moving Forward: Learning from the Past

The story of AB Specialty Silicones is one of significant growth, marred by a devastating tragedy. The repercussions of the explosion serve as a stark reminder of the pressing need for comprehensive safety measures in high-risk industries.

Striking a balance between the pursuit of profit and the assurance of employee safety is not just a legal obligation but a moral imperative for any company. As industries continue to grow and evolve, it is essential that safety standards and regulations keep pace, bridging the gaps that leave workers vulnerable and preventing future tragedies.

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