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Product Safety Incidents: “I told you so” just isn’t good enough!

Posted By Greg Smith, Friday, February 05, 2010
Updated: Saturday, February 09, 2013

Explosion and deaths in North Carolina from non-certified industrial machinery.

In 2004, the West Pharmaceutical plant exploded killing several people and injuring many more. The cause of the explosion was non-certified equipment operating in an area containing explosive dust. The incident was a tragedy that likely could have been avoided.

In the beginning, West Pharmaceutical opened the plant and got their certificate of occupancy (CO) after all the local inspections were complete. NC inspectors have been informed and vigilant for many years, so it’s likely that their equipment was initially inspected for the certification status (e.g., UL, CSA, MET, ETL, TUV, etc.). At some point, more machinery was added, maybe even without the need to pull an electrical permit. This is when the non-certified equipment was installed.

Sometime in 2002, representatives from our office visited West and asked the plant managers if the equipment used in the facility was all certified by third party agencies. The question was never answered, and they were plainly told, "We’re not interested.”

Around 2003, NC OSHA received a complaint and did an inspection of West. OSHA cited their usual litany of non-compliances, including machine guarding and some other wiring problems. There was no mention of non-certified equipment. OSHA had once again walked through a facility with blinders on when it came to the listing and labeling status of equipment.

The OSHA non-compliances were "corrected,” and then several months later the plant exploded, causing a personal, economic, and environmental disaster that is still under investigation. In 2004, a newspaper interview revealed non-certified equipment as the cause of the explosion (http://www.nciaei.org/section/pdfs/WestPharmUnapEquip.pdf).

But why wouldn’t West listen when the electrical safety experts asked them about their equipment? Most likely it was the cost, and a perception that the service was not necessary, that it was only an added expense. So… would you hesitate to consult your doctor about an important surgery because you suspect he’s making money from providing this service?

In electrical safety, we take criticism from people who don’t understand electrical hazards. What they don’t know is this: We may have already saved their lives with the correct building wiring and systems, with restaurant equipment that didn’t start a fire, with the paint booth or coating system that didn’t explode in their workplace, or with the medical equipment that didn’t electrocute them during a doctor or hospital visit.

Did we see any improvements after the West Pharmaceutical disaster? Ironically, even after all this, the NC Building Codes Council, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, the Catawba County Economic Development Council, ZF Lemforder’s attorney and the NC Legislature and Governor allowed an exemption of "Industrial Machinery” for building and electrical inspections. Maybe someday the families of the dead and injured employees of West will understand how our own government and special interest groups are working hard to allow another disaster like this one.


Read more by Greg Smith

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