A senior Union Carbide Corp. official said yesterday that the firm does not intend to change safety procedures at its Institute, W.Va., plant and contended that federal regulators had "misinterepreted" when they charged the company with using workers as "canaries" to sniff out poison gas leaks.
Officials at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said they have statements from Carbide employes documenting that the firm routinely directed workers to smell for potentially lethal phosgene leaks.
But in Kanawha Valley where the Institute plant is located, local officials rallied to Carbide's defense and sharply criticized OSHA for endangering jobs in the area.
"This is a typical Washington, D.C., head-in-the-sand approach that has nothing to do with the real world," said Charleston Mayor Mike Roark. "The feeling here is Carbide is once again being bashed and West Virginia gets hammered in the process. We're struggling for our economic survival here."
The comments came one day after OSHA charged Carbide with "willful disregard for health and safety" at the Institute plant and said it will seek nearly $1.4 million in fines for 221 alleged violations of federal safety standards.
The most serious allegation is that Carbide had designated one worker on each shift to sniff for phosgene leaks if alarms went off, a practice that Secretary of Labor William E. Brock and others likened to the use of canaries in coal mines to test for methane leaks.
But Glen Kraft, a vice president for Union Carbide's agricultural products division, which oversees the Institute plant, said, "I'm trying to understand what they're referring to." He said the charges are "absolutely" untrue and that there is no reason to alter procedures.
"I don't have any justification for changing" procedures, Kraft said. "What we have there is a very safe procedure . . . . I think what OSHA is criticizing is a misunderstanding or misinterepretion. This could be a difference in terminology."
Kraft said designated operators in the phosgene unit were assigned to use hand-held detectors to explore for phosgene leaks after alarms go off. They do not wear respirators, although respirators are available if needed, he said.
"The alarms are triggered to go off at very minute concentrations and in most cases, these leaks are . . . extremely difficult to pinpoint," Kraft said. "But if there is any suspicion, if there is any possibility of approaching a hazardous situation, the man puts on his fresh-air respirator."
The operators do not automatically put the respirators on because "when you put the respirator on, you have an enclosure over your face, and it does begin to restrict your movement and your peripheral vision . . . . You can't smell anything," Kraft said.
A sampling of chemical industry experts said the practice as described by OSHA is not accepted in the industry. "I've never heard of this," said Langley Spurlock of the Chemical Manufacturers Association. "I can't imagine what you'd have to pay somebody to perform such a role."
Meanwhile, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House criminal justice subcommittee, said he will investigate whether company officials should be prosecuted. A Conyers spokesman said the panel will probe whether information about plant safety "was misrepresented or withheld."