It wasn't the mustard or nerve agent at the Deseret Chemical Depot that sickened the employees but the toxic potato salad served at a catered summer picnic to celebrate safety in the workplace.
The irony is not lost on the more than 1,000 employees at the high-hazard Stockton facility, which is home to 40 percent of the nation's stockpile of chemical agents and munitions under contract by the U.S. Army for disposal.
The 11 cases of food poisoning were enough to bump the depot's rate of reportable injuries for one month up to the highest among four other similar facilities graded in a national review of environmental and workplace safety released Thursday.
"Clearly it was our worst month," said Joe Majestic, a deputy general manager at the depot, adding too there were the usual "slips and trips, falls and cuts and the strains and sprains" that pushed the injury rate that high during the summer three years ago.
Overall, the report by the National Research Council of the National Academies noted that safety at the facilities has continuously improved over the years and is significantly better than the national industry average of time lost to workplace injuries or injuries that are recorded.
The national industry average is about four injuries per 200,000 hours worked, while the rate at chemical disposal facilities is .59 — or a little more than half an injury.
"That says our places are as dangerous as a computer design lab or banking institution, and that is amazing to me," said Greg Mahall, a spokesman with the U.S. Army's Chemical Materials Agency headquartered in Aberdeen, Md.
The report also highlighted the depot facility for not only tracking retrospectively why accidents happen and thoroughly documenting "near misses" but assessing "leading" indicators of potential pitfalls.
"The (retrospective reports) help, but the near misses, those are the things that help you look around the corner before you hit the wall. You have the risk of having something go screamingly well or not what you expected. It is always something that you can plow into next time," Majestic said.
The Tooele depot began its mission to destroy chemical munitions and agents in 1996 and had 13,617 tons. As of late April, it was nearly 79 percent done, having eliminated 10,734 tons.
Beyond its adherence to safety protocols, the facility was noted in the national report for adopting environmentally proactive practices that are beyond regulatory oversight, such as documenting recycling of scrap metal and paper, fuel usage and water consumption.
"It's important because we are in kind of a nasty business out here and a lot of folks want to make sure that we are doing everything possible to protect our works and the environment. It has to be higher than just simple compliance," Majestic said.
Just this month, the facility earned "Star status" under OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program, the highest workplace safety recognition.
For the first time since the food poisoning incident,
Majestic said they plan to reward workers with a celebratory affair of hot dogs, hamburgers and the works, but this time, "I will guarantee you this, doggone it, everything will be at the right temperature."
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