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Safety Faulted at Richmond Chemical Works;
New Report Finds Lapses, Lax Procedures

By Simon Kinsella, December 3, 2002 10:08 PM

RICHMOND -- A new safety evaluation of the General Chemical Works facility here released tonight by an independent consultant reports that workers may have under-reported "near-misses," or hazardous incidents that could have resulted in catastrophe over the past year. The county-funded evaluation also criticizes the plant for following lax safety procedures.

The evaluation lists seven areas in which General Chemical safety procedures were lacking. Included in the report's findings are poor worker "team spirit", a lack of collective vision for safety, outdated equipment and an emphasis on corrective, rather than preventative, maintenance.

"I think the plant has been suffering under austere management in the late 90s," said J. Ivor John, the consultant who oversaw the evaluation.

General Chemical has had numerous lapses in safety in the past. In 1993, one of the company's rail cars leaked several tons of sulfuric acid, hospitalizing thousands of Richmond residents. Two accidents in 2001 also released sulfur dioxide and trioxide, potentially harmful chemicals.

The incidents prompted the Contra Costa County Health Services and the City of Richmond to request the independent study, which took place between Oct. 7 and Oct. 11.

The study, which consisted of interviews, reviews of documents and on-site observations, finds that there is an absence of a clear vision for safety at the Richmond facility.

"There is no collective vision of what the safety program is," said John.

John said while the report found managers were by and large committed to safety, many workers surveyed expressed concern about the lack of a "safety culture" at General Chemical.

Many of those surveyed said they felt their concerns, such as the availability of safety goggles, were not adequately addressed.

They also reported that potentially hazardous near-misses often went unreported.

"A lot of that has to do with people skipping steps," said John F. Peirson, Jr., a representative from Marine Research Specialists, the group that conducted the study. "For example, even though some of them have been doing it for 50 years, they may not be following the correct procedure."

The report concludes that General Chemical needs to develop a clear safety culture for its employees, and recommends additional training and better reporting on near-misses.

The report is available for public review until Dec. 17, after which Marine Research Specialists will take citizens' comments into account. The research firm will present a final draft of its report to the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors Jan. 14 in Martinez.

But without any follow-up scheduled, it is unclear how the study's findings will impact General Chemical's safety performance.

"(A follow up) may not be necessary, but our oversight committee felt it was," said Randall L. Sawyer, a representative from Contra Costa's hazardous materials program.

Pierson suggested a second follow-up survey might be one way to tell if workers felt there had been improvement.

Representatives from General Chemical said overall, they were pleased with the findings of the report.

"In general, we agree with the report," said Manager of Environmental Health and Safety Jeff W. Jakonczuk. "Safety culture was the most critical of the findings. But we did well in other areas, such as management systems."

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