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Workplace Explosions and Safety in Massachusetts

Spring is officially here and fertilizer is being used regularly. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently partnered with the Agricultural Retailers Association and the Fertilizer Institute in order to get retailers, distributors, producers, and others in the fertilizer industry to make sure they are safely storing and handling ammonium nitrate. Safe handling of any potentially explosive material is of critical importance to employee safety.

OSHA defines as “explosive” any chemical compound, mixture or device that has a primary or common purpose of functioning by explosion unless otherwise classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation. It includes dynamite powder, squibs, small arms ammunition, smokeless propellant and more. “Commercial explosives” are those used for commercial and industrial operations.

Last April there was an ammonium nitrate explosion in West Texas that claimed 15 lives, 12 of which were those of emergency response personnel. United States Geological Survey seismographs registered the factory explosion as having the magnitude of a 2.1 earthquake. In that case, OSHA cited owners of a fertilizer company with 24 serious safety violations for exposing workers to the dangers of chemical burns and inhalation hazards.

Most of the time, however, ammonium nitrate fertilizer is not a dangerous explosive. It has been called a “marginal explosive.” However, it can become dangerous when the conditions are just right.

Ammonium nitrate produces heat as it decomposes and if it produces enough heat, it can catch itself on fire. A couple hundred tons of ammonium nitrate can cause an explosion if it is exposed to a strong shock or if it’s confined and subject to high temperatures. Heat can seal and trap hot gases.

Explosions of all kinds caused fatalities in workplaces 2012. In February, there were two explosions in a ball bearing plant in New Hampshire. The factory produced high-tech aerospace parts and used chemicals but it was not clear whether they caused the blast. Thirteen in that explosion were sent to the hospital and two of them had critical injuries. They were taken by Dartmouth Hitchcock Advanced Response Team helicopters to Boston Hospitals. The explosion were not believed to be acts of terrorism.

As noted above, chemical burns can occur as a result of any sort of chemical explosion. If you or a coworker gets a chemical burn, you should first remove anything causing the burn. Any clothes or jewelry that has been contaminated should be removed, too. Rinse the affected skin area with cool running water for 10-20 minutes. The area affected by a chemical burn should be wrapped with a dry, sterile dressing or cloth. It may be necessary to take an over-the-counter pain reliever. You should go to the doctor and get a tetanus shot because burns are susceptible to tetanus.

If you or your coworker is experiencing shock (or fainting or shallow breathing), you should request emergency assistance. Similarly, emergency assistance may be necessary if a chemical burn goes below the outer-most layer of skin or covers an area more than 3 inches in diameter. Similarly, a chemical burn that occurs on the eyes, hands, face, feet, groin or any major joint should be seen and treated by a doctor.

Explosions can also lead to the loss of limbs or death. If you work around explosives, it is wise to understand proper storage techniques and to know various first aid measures. This is your employer’s responsibility, but it can help to be prepared.

If you are hurt at work, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. An experienced Massachusetts workers’ compensation attorney can evaluate whether you have a sound claim and fight to make sure that your employer and its insurer follow the rules. Contact us by calling 800-367-0871 or using our online contact form.

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