Often when we think about workplace accidents, it is in an abstract way. It’s one thing to read about the possibility of a molten metal spatter incident or combustible dust igniting. But when seen in the context of an actual event, these dangers tend to become a bit more real. It is for that reason that we present this list of five major work zone accidents from recent US history.

The Centralia Mining Disaster
On March 25th 1947, the Centralia No. 5 coal mine exploded a few miles west of Centralia, Illinois. The massive underground blast was caused by an explosive detonation that ignited coal dust and killed 111 of the 142 workers present in the mine at the time. 65 died from burns and explosion related injuries while another 45 were killed by the toxic mixture of gases released by the accident.

While stricter safety laws regarding mining had been passed the year before, inspections and enforcement were still rare. Within six months of the Centralia mining disaster, Congress passed a resolution to significantly increase the amount of safety oversight in the industry.

The Willow Island Disaster
On April 27th 1978, a cooling tower under construction at the Willow Island power station in West Virginia collapsed, killing 51 construction workers in the largest recorded construction accident in American history.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation found numerous issues that led to the calamity, including rushed deadlines that did not allow concrete to properly cure and insufficiently graded bolts used to hold the scaffolding together. A single ladder leading to the cooling tower effectively trapped many of the workers as the structure collapsed.

Imperial Sugar Refinery Explosion
On February 7th 2008, the Imperial Sugar Refinery in Wentworth Georgia exploded killing 14 people and injuring 42 out of the 112 employees on site at the time. A dust explosion in the basement of the building was found to be the cause of the blast.

The Chemical Safety board report called the explosion “entirely preventable”, noting memorandums from Imperial Sugar discussing the risk of sugar dust exploding and recent construction done at the plant which allowed the dust to accumulate to dangerous levels. There were no evacuation procedure in place, and the lack of emergency lighting led to workers being trapped in the burning facility after the explosion.

West Fertilizer Company Explosion
On April 17th 2013, a fire at a West Fertilizer Company storage facility north of Waco, Texas caused storage tanks with 240 tons of ammonium nitrate to explode, killing 15 people and injuring more than 200. Rescue workers fighting the original blaze made up many of the deaths, while the explosion was so large it caused a 2.1-magnitude tremor and destroyed over 100 buildings in the surrounding community.

OSHA documents from before the incident showed a history of safety violations related to worker safety and improper chemical storage. The incident highlighted a problem where federal, state, and local regulatory agencies had all expected the other levels of government to enforce safety regulations.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig Explosion
On April 20th 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico 40 miles southeast of Louisiana exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 16 others out of the 126 people on board. A bubble of methane gas escaped from the well and expanded as it traveled up the drilling riser, bursting through several seals and barriers before exploding, engulfing the platform in a fire that lasted for over a day until the entire structure sank into the Gulf.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion led to an oil spill that released 4.9 million barrels worth of oil into the Gulf, making it the worst work zone accident in US history. The investigation that followed found a corporate culture were ‘cheap and fast’ methods were used over safer but more expensive options. Workers also reported that many safety violations and incidents were left unreported due to fear of reprisals and firings.

Each of these accidents shows how overlooked safety issues can lead to devastating results. Cutting corners, ignoring unsafe working conditions, a lack of disaster planning, and sweeping safety violations under the rug are just some of the ways in which ‘small’ issues can turn into massive accidents endangering the lives of everyone on site and in surrounding communities.

Major work zone accidents are not just relegated to the last century or third world countries. We must all do our part to tackle safety issues in the workplace whenever we encounter them. Learn more about how Workrite is helping to better protect workers across all industries, including petrochemical, combustible dust and utilities.