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CEO says safety was of utmost importance

Explosion at Rouse Polymerics under investigation

VICKSBURG — When an explosion rocked the 60,000-square-foot Rouse Polymerics International Inc. (RPI) plant on May 16 around 6 p.m., the lives of company employees and their family members were changed forever.

About 100 people are employed at RPI. The accident, which is still under investigation by several state and federal agencies, appears to have happened in the vicinity of the company’s packaging system. Four employees — Clyde “Teddy” Smith, 40, Tywayne Croskey, 25, Alfred Harrison, 42, and Roy Deaton, 50 — were killed as a result of the explosion and ensuing fire. Eight others were injured.

As one of the largest producers of recycled elastomeric materials in the world, RPI has always worked hard to make safety a number one priority, said company CEO Michael Rouse. The company turns industrial scrap into infinitely powdered rubber for use by tire manufacturers and other industries.

“We’ve never had problems like this at all,” Rouse said. “Safety was always my number one concern, then environment and production. This has really blindsided us.”

Rouse said the plant is a total loss, but it is the lives of his employees and their families, not the future of the plant, that weigh most on his mind.

“It’s really a nightmare,” Rouse said.

While employees and family members mourn the losses of the four employees who died, and pray for the well being of other hospitalized employees, Rouse, in a prepared statement, said the inevitable questions — “how could this happen?” and “where do we go from here” — must be addressed. Rouse is currently looking at two possible relocation sites in Vicksburg and anticipates being up and running within six months pending the necessary cooperation from insurance agents and federal and state regulatory agencies.

“It’s bad enough for people to lose their jobs and for our clientele not to get their product but when it affects lives through death and suffering that takes it to the most horrible level,” Rouse said. “But right now I have to see how we can rebuild and move forward in a positive way.”

According to Clyde Payne, area director of the Jackson area office of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the explosion at RPI is the deadliest work-related accident in Mississippi since a 1,999-foot WLBT television tower collapsed on Oct. 23, 1997, killing three.

“In the area of how likely this is to happen again, I hope it won’t,” Payne said. “That’s why we want to take steps to prevent these kinds of things from occurring.”

Payne said smaller facilities are at a higher risk than larger ones for accidents to occur.

“Our large corporations, big facilities and many of the medium-size corporations have really recognized the value of safety and have done a great job of incorporating safety into their annual work plans, their philosophies, their corporate missions,” Payne said. “We’ve seen quite a bit of improvement in the time that I’ve been here in the attitudes and the efforts, so I think we’ve come a long way.”

Payne said while there are no guarantees an accident like the one that occurred at RPI will not happen again, people are working everyday to prevent it.

For Callon Petroleum Company, headquartered in Natchez, every effort is made to ensure that employees who work at the company’s offshore drilling platforms are safe.

“We’ve had a pretty good history of non-incidents and accidents,” said Carl Sayers, manager for safety, environmental and regulatory matters for Callon.

Sayers said safety is of the utmost importance at Callon. Contractors, for example, are judged not only on job performance but on safety performance as well. And even with a proven safety record, contractors, as well as employees, are given safety training.

Chevron Pascagoula Refinery, operating around the clock, 365 days a year, also holds safety in the highest regard. In 2001 for the third consecutive year, Chevron’s Pascagoula refinery achieved its best safety performance since the refinery began operation in 1963. It finished 2001 with just seven injuries and a 0.55 incident rate. About 1,200 are employed at Chevron Pascagoula.

“Accidents do happen, but we believe here that they are avoidable,” said Carole Williams-Keenze, Chevron Pascagoula’s public affairs communication specialist. “But it takes time. You have to spend time before routine work begins to touch on the best behaviors. It’s not always easy to do because employees always want to get at their work and do the work and it’s a pain sometimes to look at the big picture.”

Williams-Keenze said Chevron Pascagoula’s philosophy is that (safety) is more important than getting the work done.

“That comes first and the bottom line and profitability comes second,” Williams-Keenze said.

That was also the thinking of Rouse and RPI employees.

“At this time we simply do not have all of the answers and may not have the complete picture for some time,” Rouse said.

RPI is cooperating with OSHA and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to identify the cause of the May 16 accident.

“We have a strong reputation throughout this industry and are widely viewed as leaders in possession of a visionary technology,” Rouse said. “Understand that all of this is meaningless without the dedicated support of our loyal employees. To that end, our number one priority will be to remain committed to meeting their and the needs of their families wherever possible.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.

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