According to federal safety investigators, inadequate safety controls for chemical reaction hazards led to an explosion at a North Carolina chemical plant that killed one worker and injured 14 others last year in Morganton, North Carolina.

On January 31, 2006, employees at the Synthron Inc. plant were making a paint additive in a 1,500-gallon reactor when chemical vapor escaped, creating a subsequent vapor cloud explosion and fires, according to the agencies report. The blast leveled much of the plant, blew out windows several blocks away, and injured all 12 employees on duty and some passers-by. The maintenance head over the plant’s facilities died after suffering severe burns. The plant was about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina.

In its final report, the board said the reactor “lacked basic safeguards to prevent, detect and mitigate runaway reactions, and that essential safety management practices were not in place.” The agency also said ineffective corporate oversight by Synthron’s parent company, Protex International, contributed to the likelihood and severity of the accident. Jim Lay, lead investigator with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, stated that if the proper safety practices and policies had been in place, the incident would have never happened.

Synthron manufactured acrylic polymers for use as paint and coating additives. The accident occurred when plant managers attempted to fulfill an order for acrylic polymer that exceeded the normal batch size for the product. Instead of making two smaller batches, managers decided to make a single, larger batch.

The board recommended that Protex establish a program to follow “good industry safety practices” at all its remaining U.S. facilities. Following the accident, the company filed for bankruptcy and thus far the facility in Morganton, North Carolina has not been rebuilt. In addition to the Synthron facility, which was located in Burke County, Protex operates chemical-related businesses in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Florida.


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