January 12, 2023

CSB Chair: Frigid Temperatures Led to “Unprecedented” Increase in Chemical Incidents

The December plunge in temperatures across much of the United States contributed to an “unprecedented” increase in the number of chemical incidents reported to the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, according to Steve Owens, the CSB chairperson.

Reportable incidents to CSB include those that result in fatalities, serious injuries, or substantial property damage. From Dec. 6 through Dec. 26, 18 separate chemical incidents were reported to the agency, including two that resulted in fatalities and five in injuries. CSB called on chemical facilities to better prepare for the challenges of cold weather, which can cause pipes to break and instruments to fail. Cold can also result in the formation of a hydrate, a chemical combination of water with a compound, which can expand and block pipes, according to CSB.

Owens said the increase in incidents “may be partly due to the unique safety challenges posed by cold weather, but regardless, companies need to heighten their focus on safe operations and recognize that taking important precautionary actions, like winterization, can help prevent major chemical accidents.”

Data (Excel file) made available by CSB list all reported chemical incidents that occurred in 2022. The total of 36 incidents between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 is more than twice the number that occurred during the same period in 2021 and 2020, CSB said.

The agency did not release descriptions of the recent incidents or indicate whether any are under investigation at the agency. Local news reports in December describe a variety of mishaps in facilities across the country, including fires, gasoline leaks, ammonia releases, and explosions. In two of the incidents, cold weather was identified as a contributing factor. A gas spill occurred at a Kinder Morgan oil refinery in Hartford, Illinois, on Dec. 23, when temperatures in the area fell to -6 F. The next day, malfunctions and fires at a Suncor Energy refinery in Commerce City, Colorado, were attributed in part to temperatures that reached a low of 2 F.

For more information, visit the CSB website.

Related: The article “Process Safety Management and the IH,” which was published in The Synergist in October 2021, examines OSHA’s process safety management standard, which focuses on preventing the unexpected release of toxic, reactive, or flammable liquids and gases.