OSHA report cites Rouse for multiple hazards

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 19, 2002

[11/18/02]Violations of workplace-safety rules contributed to the May 16 rubber-recycling plant fire and explosion in Vicksburg that resulted in five deaths, a federal official said Monday.

“This employer has been previously cited for housekeeping and electrical violations, both of which contributed to the explosion,” said Clyde Payne, Jackson area director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Yet management continued to expose workers to both hazards.”

Rouse Polymerics, off U.S. 61 South, has been largely closed since exploding in flames in Vicksburg’s deadliest industrial disaster.

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The two OSHA citations list two willful and 22 serious safety violations.

The owner, Michael Rouse, responded with a statement saying the violations were not the trigger of the disaster. “While OSHA found several deficiencies in the course of its six-month investigation, it concluded that none of those deficiencies caused the explosion.”

In all, 12 employees were hurt. Many among the seven who recovered from their injuries, mostly burns, were hospitalized for months.

Fines totaling $210,600 are proposed along with the citations. Rouse has 15 working days to contest the citations and proposed penalties before they become a final order.

OSHA’s identification of the events that led to the disaster closely matched accounts of witnesses.

“The operation of a dryer system resulted in hot embers of rubber being exhausted onto the roof of the building,” Payne said, “and a roof fire originated that led to an ignition in the bagging operation.”

The fine-ground rubber OSHA produces from old tires and other scrap for use in the manufacture of new tires, asphalt and other products, is flammable, especially in airborne particles. The explosion of the bagging operation jarred into the air excess rubber dust and more explosions ripped through the 60,000-square-foot plant, Payne said. Some of the violations cited addressed the company’s failure to keep the plant free from hazardous accumulation of rubber dust.

“The accumulation of dust on rafters and equipment contributed in that the dust became airborne and propagated the explosions and the fire in the facility,” Payne said.

Rouse said management would meet with Payne soon to talk about options.

“We want to thank OSHA for the professional and thorough investigation it undertook, and we want everyone to know that we will use its findings when we resume production operations, providing better products to our customers and a better, safer workplace for everyone here,” he said.

When the explosion occurred in the bagging unit, it did not rupture out away from the facility as it was designed to do, but instead reached other parts of the facility, Payne said. OSHA also found Rouse at fault for that, he added.

Employing about 100 workers when hit by fire, Rouse quickly dropped to fewer than 10 employees, mainly management. In August, the company’s employee count remained as low as seven. By October, though, OSHA had released enough of the facility for Rouse to resume some operations, including running a small pilot plant, and was employing about 12 people, Rouse said.

Rouse has said he intends to rebuild on the company’s current site. Production was to increase late this month in the part of the plant that remained operable and, by January, removal of the burned building and construction of a new facility were to be complete, Rouse said.

As it rebuilds, a low-interest loan tentatively OK’d by the Mississippi Development Authority and sought with the City of Vicksburg’s approval in October will have a role. The loan is expected to provide Rouse with up to $1 million in cash and with a potential subsidy from federal taxpayers of at least $320,000 over the life of the loan.

Rouse also received a $425,000 matching grant from a state tire-tax fund to build a 16,000-foot indoor raw-materials-storage facility in 1996.

Records show that in April 2001, the company settled with the state Department of Environmental Quality and paid a fine of $138,250 for 10 alleged violations of environmental laws or regulations, including four for air emissions.

MDEQ also cited Rouse for allowing dust particles to accumulate around its plant and grounds in 1998, but found improvement when it returned in 1999.

At least one civil lawsuit has been filed by a representative of a Rouse worker who died from injuries from the fire. The wife of Roy E. Deaton, of Vicksburg, filed a wrongful death suit May 28 in Warren County Circuit Court. It asks for a jury trial to determine damages, including punitive damages, but did not specify amounts or defendants. Civil suits can be amended at any time to make changes as facts are developed.