Wacker’s commitment to safety is a mandate

Posted 9/13/17

In baseball vernacular, a familiar adage warns, “Three strikes and you’re out.”

With regard to the recent safety challenges facing the Wacker Polysilicon North America plant near Charleston, …

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Wacker’s commitment to safety is a mandate

Posted

In baseball vernacular, a familiar adage warns, “Three strikes and you’re out.”

With regard to the recent safety challenges facing the Wacker Polysilicon North America plant near Charleston, any comparison to baseball seems irrelevant — and it is — except for two troubling points.

One came Aug. 30 when a chemical release — an incident still under investigation — identified as chlorosilane reportedly injured five workers, one of whom was treated at the scene and three others who were transported to Tennova Healthcare-Cleveland; and the fifth was taken by Life Force to Nashville for more specialized treatment.

This was strike one against a major manufacturer whose north Bradley County operations got underway just last year.

A second came Sept. 7 — only eight days later — when an explosion that shook surrounding homes released a version of the same chemical called trichlorosilane. Once it had interacted with moisture in the air, the byproduct became hydrochloride (HCl). To contain the HCI cloud, and to prevent its spread, emergency crews sprayed it with water — which is established protocol for such circumstances — and this resulted in a massive vapor plume seen for miles around, and which essentially was water and steam with a minimal trace of hydrochloric acid.

HCI carries with it a strong odor and can cause irritation to the respiratory tract.

Three people eventually were transported for medical treatment: one for burns, one who reported chest pains and a Wacker firefighter suffering from heat exhaustion. It was also reported several people off-site transported themselves to Tennova complaining of irritation to their eyes and throats.

This was strike two against a company that employs 650 people locally, and whose leaders are already undertaking an aggressive expansion of Bradley County operations.

Certainly, Wacker Polysilicon North America can ill-afford a strike three ... and not because of a worsening public image that such an empty swing would inflame, but because of a much greater consequence: we speak of human life, community safety, and the spread of public suspicion spawned from a fear of the unknown.

This is why — at the very least — Wacker leaders should be given the chance to right their company’s wrongs.

Through its actions, as announced last Friday, the company appears to be taking the right steps.

Suspending plant operations — that is, the manufacture of product — pending the completion of a full internal and external investigation, was the right move. Keeping the workforce on-site and on the payroll, but only after assuring their safety, was the next meaningful step.

But the biggest task lies ahead; that is, finding answers. Until those answers surface, and until mechanical and procedural fixes have been put in place and then tested and re-tested, no Wacker worker or contractor should be exposed to the potential of “equipment failure” like that which led to last week’s frightening explosion.

Surely, such an operations shutdown — depending on how short or how long — could cost Wacker hundreds of thousands of dollars, and perhaps more, in business. But when compared to the value of human life, the color of profit sorely pales.

We believe Wacker Polysilicon — whose corporate leaders in Germany have reportedly authorized full transparency to the public, and especially to the neighbors of the Charleston plant since last Thursday’s explosion — gets it.

We will take Mary Beth Hudson, Wacker Polysilicon vice president and Charleston plant site manager, at her word when she cites, “We will not resume our operations until we can be assured that we have all systems safeguarded and secure, and that all employees and our community are safe.”

It won’t be an easy task. The Wacker complex near Charleston is huge, and its processes involving potentially lethal chemicals, are as detailed as they are complicated.

But company leaders have pledged a fix, and not a band-aid.

This is how it should be. This is the way it must be.

Wacker’s neighbors had every right to be angry after last week’s explosion. It came too close to the Aug. 30 chemical leak. Such happenings, when they happen back to back, breed angst among those whose lives, and those of their loved ones, hang in the balance.

Tuesday’s latest incident — a slight elevation of residual chemicals stemming from the Sept. 7 event that triggered shelter-in-place alarms for employees — only worsened levels of discomfort for workers and plant neighbors.

Wacker’s detail, and the company’s transparency, in any repair to its equipment and processes will go a long way in assuring a repair to its wounded public image.

But the fix must come first. When it does, and once its effectiveness is proven, public forgiveness should follow.

Like any manufacturer, Wacker’s operations will not be perfect. But unlike other manufacturers, its mistakes can be deadly.

Such is why the Wacker plant near Charleston must operate as perfectly as possible.

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