Why Did the Airgas Explosion Happen and How Can It Be Prevented in the Future? 

On August 28, 2016, an explosion occurred in Pensacola, FL at an AirGas Facility, taking the life of one of the employees working at the facility. How exactly did this explosion occur, however? Did anything happen to AirGas as a result of this explosion? And how can it be prevented from happening again in the future?

What Caused The Explosion at The AirGas Facility in Pensacola, FL?

For as impactful an explosion as occurred in Pensacola, FL at an AirGas Facility, the cause of the explosion came from something rather small: namely, a pump that was allowed to heat the nitrous oxide being transferred by an employee to a trailer above its safe operating limit. This led to the nitrous oxide rapidly decomposing in the pump. The decomposition spread into the trailer and caused the explosion, killing the AirGas operator and sending metal shrapnel hundreds of feet out. This ultimately saw the facility sustaining significant damage and leading to the company ceasing production of nitrous oxide indefinitely. This explosion led to an investigation not only into the explosion itself, but the circumstances that lead to the explosion being possible in the first place. This investigation was conducted by the Chemical Safety Board, which found some rather interesting details. One of the more significant findings is that while federal regulations apply to chemical facilities that manufacture hazardous substances, namely those which protect the workforce and the public from harm through proper safety management systems, does not actually apply to chemical facilities that manufacture nitrous oxide, such as AirGas. Certainly, a strange fact, given that nitrous oxide is a hazardous substance, as evidenced by the death it caused. The ultimate finding is that the reason why this explosion occurred is because the AirGas Facility in Pensacola, FL lacked a proper safety management function to avoid such risks.

The pump was a known hazard, even to AirGas, and there were methods they could have taken to eliminate the need for the pump and thus mitigate the risk of harm. While a safety interlock system was implemented to try to shut down the pump as well as the flame arrestors, this safety consideration was inadequate to prevent the occurrence of the explosion from the heat hazard. The investigation accounted for the possibility that it was static electricity that may have caught it, but ultimately, they came to the conclusion that this safety interlock system failing to prevent the heat hazard from happening was the ultimate cause of the explosion and the following death. This led to the Chemical Safety Board giving their recommendations to AirGas as well as multiple other companies which also manufacture nitrous oxide that they develop and implement a proper safety management system standard as well as spread warnings about the risk of nitrous oxide decomposition. Such recommendations are meant to improve the level of safety associated with manufacturing, transferring, and shipment of nitrous oxide. Not only do these save lives, but they are ultimately better for a company in the long run.

What Can Be Done to Prevent a Similar Situation From Happening Again in The Future?

This is an entirely unfortunate story, one where someone lost their life as a result of an oversight that was entirely too easy to have accounted for. Beyond this, the question becomes how, exactly, can this be prevented from happening again in the future? Regulations are needed for the nitrous oxide industry to ensure that those who manufacture it do it in a safe and sensible way. Unfortunately, it is not the easiest thing to implement. Even if you go on state level, you may find yourself running into difficulties down the road from people who oppose such regulation. Some oppose it because they have a vested interest in nitrous oxide manufacturing themselves, while others simply view regulations as something to be avoided. And that is just state level — getting things regulated on a national level is an entirely different beast altogether.

Despite this explosion occurring all the way back in August 2016, it is not the last time a similar explosion took place. In fact, it is not nearly as deadly as one that occurred on August 5, 2020, where an ammonium nitrate — a chemical compound that can be converted into nitrous oxide — explosion in a Beirut seaport took 200 lives and injured more than 6,000 other people. These kinds of incidents should be a rallying cry to regulate and control, although to be fair, dealing with international regulation is so much more difficult.

Despite many of the issues that are faced in regulation, however, is that in 2019, AirGas seemed to take the recommendations that the Chemical Safety Board made to heart, which lead to the Chemical Safety Board praising AirGas for the efforts they made. They make the point that despite it not being required by law, AirGas still made a point of implementing these changes to how they handle the manufacture of nitrous oxide. Specific reforms they made include an improved audit system and safer designs for its production facilities, trucking fleet, and cylinder-filling operations. The Pensacola, FL location is still shut down as of July 30, 2020, but the new programs are used in the other AirGas facilities that are still up and running.

When someone is responsible for an explosion, you may be able to seek compensation for any damages that the explosion caused. Be sure to get in contact with a lawyer as soon as possible to discuss a possible claim.