Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dust Explosions and Corporate Homicide Prosecutions


A very informative article by Cesar de Castro was recently posted in the New York Law Journal, "Sorting Out the Law on Homicide Prosecutions Against Corporations." which addresses issues concerning corporate homicide prosecution such as workplace fatalities arising from dust explosions. The article mentioned the People v. Warner-Lambertt case where in 1976 a dust explosion at the American Chicle plant in Queens, New York, killed six people and injured 55.

Magnesium stearate (MS) was utilized in the manufacturing process of Freshen-Up chewing gum at the Queen's chewing gum plant. Court documents provided information, "that at the end of one of the work shifts workers were engaged in removing settled MS dust from the bottom of a machine and from overhead pipes by broom sweeping and by the use of air hoses. Suddenly an explosion occurred in the area of the operating machine, followed almost immediately by a second, much larger explosion."

After a lengthy investigation, a grand jury indicted Warner-Lambert and four of its executives on charges of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. In 1978 the state court dismissed the charges. The following year, in 1979, the New York State appellate court restored the indictments. A year later, in 1980, the state court again dismissed all charges in connection with the explosion.

Cesar de Castro's excellent article provides helpful insight concerning litigation that ensues following catastrophic incidents such as in the above example. Hopefully manufacturing facilities will adhere to proper preventative and mitigative measures as outlined in the NFPA combustible dust standards in addition to other measures in minimizing the severity and probability of dust explosions from occurring.

Conducting a Google Search on Magnesium Stearate MSDS's produced varying results. Some MSDS's provide information on the dust explosion and fire hazards, yet others don't. The most extensive MSDS was from Mallinckrodt Chemical, which lists the deflagration index (Kst), Minimum Ignition Energy (MIE), Minimum Explosible Concentration (MEC), Minimum Ignition Temperature (MIT)-Dust Cloud, Minimum Ignition Temperature-Dust Layer, and Limiting Oxygen Concentration (LOC).

Reviewing the MSDS provided by Mallinckrodt Chemical is an excellent example of the proactive measures that stakeholders must utilize in providing hazard communication information on the fire and explosion hazards of combustible dust throughout a facility that handle such dusts. With this vital information workers, plant managers, and owners can take the appropiate measures in preventing future fatalities and injuries as what occurred over three decades ago at the American Chicle plant in Queens, New York.

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