Federal officials this week released a video recreation showing what exactly caused a massive explosion and fire at AB Specialty Silicones in Waukegan that killed four employees in 2019.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released the video on Thursday explaining the May 3, 2019, blast at an AB Specialty Silicones plant near Northwestern Avenue and Sunset Avenue in Waukegan.
AB Specialty Silicones manufactures silicone products used in a wide variety of applications, including personal care and roof coatings. The products are distributed worldwide.
The product EM-652, which is used as a waterproofing agent, was being made using a batch process the night of the explosion, the federal agency said.
The video explained how an employee mixed two incompatible chemicals after misidentifying a drum of chemicals.
The mixture reacted and produced highly flammable hydrogen gas that ignited.
The ignition caused a “massive explosion” that killed employees Jeff Cummings, 57, of Kenosha, Wisconsin; Byron H. Biehn, 53, of Brighton Township, Wisconsin; Daniel Nicklas, 24, of Beach Park; and Allen E. Stevens Jr., 29, of Salem, Wisconsin.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the company in October 2019 for willful violations, which means “the employer either knowingly failed to comply with a legal requirement (purposeful disregard) or acted with plain indifference to employee safety.”
The company was fined $1,591,176 and OSHA placed the silicon chemical products manufacturer in the “Severe Violator Enforcement Program.”
“OSHA investigators determined AB Specialty Silicones failed to ensure that electrical equipment and installations in the production area of the plant complied with OSHA electrical standards, and were approved for hazardous locations,” the U.S. Department of Labor said in October 2019.
“The company also used forklifts powered by liquid propane to transport volatile flammable liquids, and operated these forklifts in areas where employees handled and processed volatile flammable liquids and gases, creating the potential for ignition,” the U.S. Department of Labor added.
“By ignoring safety and health requirements, this employer created an unsafe work environment with deadly consequences,” Loren Sweatt, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA, said.
“An employer’s adherence to safety and health standards, including the proper use of electrical equipment and forklifts when handling flammable liquids, is critical to preventing fire, explosions and other incidents that can seriously or fatally injure workers,” OSHA Acting Regional Administrator Nancy Hauter said.
The explosion caused more than $1 million in damage and damaged at least five other buildings in the area of the plant.
Nine people were working in the AB Speciality Silicones plant at the time of the explosion.
Of the nine employees, four were found dead in the rubble, three escaped the building but suffered injuries, and two of them escaped without injury.
Cummings, who was a supervisor at the plant, noticed a problem just before the blast and reportedly helped evacuate employees.
He went back inside the building to look for the remaining employees when the explosion occurred.
Stevens had been transported by ambulance to an area hospital and later transferred to the Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood where he died.
Residents throughout Lake County reported feeling and hearing the explosion and some even felt it from more than 15 miles away.
Debris from the explosion covered Sunset Avenue near Northwestern Avenue as over 100 firefighters from throughout Lake County and Cook County were called to the scene.