The Labor Inspection has concluded that the Iqoxe chemical plant in Tarragona, whose explosion in January 2019 caused three deaths, failed to comply with the occupational risk regulations in four areas, including the training of workers in explosive atmospheres and the protection of employees . In addition, the plant operated without an approved occupational risk prevention plan.
The company from the explosion in the Tarragona petrochemical plant dumped waste into the sea and increased production “clandestinely”
This is stated by the Inspection in its final report delivered to the Tarragona magistrate who is investigating the accident, which is facing the final stretch of the investigation and must decide whether to send the two accused Iqoxe executives to trial. On the instructor’s table, a summary of almost 10,000 pages that gives an account of the policy of cost reduction and occupational safety carried out by the company, but which is not definitive when it comes to clarifying the causes of the accident. Different experts do not agree when determining specifically what caused the explosion.
This divergence between experts seizes the defense of the two investigated, the director of the Iqoxe plant in La Canonja (Tarragona), Juan Manuel Rodríguez Prats, and the general director of the company, José Luís Morlanes, to claim their exoneration. The accusations see it differently. The Prosecutor’s Office warns that it is not only necessary to take into account the scientific components but also the “circumstances that gave rise to the explosion”, which in its opinion may constitute several crimes: against the rights of workers and against safety at work, an environmental crime for the plant discharges into the sea and another against the planning of the territory due to deficiencies in security and urban planning authorizations.
The report of the Labor Inspection, required by the judge in March 2020 and delivered one year and four months later, gives a boost to the thesis of the accusations, which link the accident with the business decision to cut security and personnel to the time it took the staff to increase production.
According to the inspector, the company gave him a document from the year 2015 as an occupational risk prevention plan, but of which “there is no evidence” that it was approved since there is no signature on it nor any act in which it was given green light. “There is also no evidence that the workers are aware of the plan,” says the inspector.
The Inspection also points out that the document does not contain references neither on the new production units installed after 2015, among which was the accident, nor on the occupational risk assessment of the MPEG-500 production process, which was being manufactured in the moment of explosion.
The Inspection report is devastating in terms of the risks for the plant’s employees: after surveying the workforce, it is concluded that 98% of workers are exposed to an “unfavorable situation” in their position, and 71% say that many times or always has to work very fast. Consequently, the Inspection recommends increasing the staff to “correct the excessive tasks assigned to workers in relation to the time they have to carry them out.”
The inspector has not been able to find in Iqoxe any documents on risk assessment in explosive atmospheres or a trace of specific training for the staff on the risks of working with ethylene oxide. And regarding the personal protective equipment of workers, the opinion highlights that they do not conform to what their data sheets say about their safety. For example: glasses protect against impacts, but not against rust splashes.
Discrepancies between experts
Less definitive are the reports that the different experts in the case have provided on the causes of the explosion. Even the four specialists appointed by the court and who are not from the party do not reach the same conclusion. The first expert pointed out that the damaged unit required a shutdown for maintenance that was never carried out and that on the day of the accident “it presented failures but it was decided to continue producing, to the detriment of the principle of prudence and prevention for safety.”
The second expert is limited to pointing out that the accident was due to a “sum of causes, but it is not clear which is the real one”, while the third and fourth have not observed “defects” or “breaches” in the machinery that could have influenced the accident.
The judge has also received a report from a former employee of the company that disputes the thesis of the expert opinion commissioned by Iqoxe from the Institut Químic Sarrià (IQS), which she calls “unscientific” for concluding that the accident was “unpredictable” and not keep in mind that the crashed reactor was not fully automated. “The working conditions and the minimum spending policy promoted by the executives lead to the probability of accidents being very high,” concludes the former employee.