Monday, April 03, 2023

An Unhappy Easter in West Reading: The R. M. Palmer Chocolate Factory Explosion


Chocolate Easter bunnies are a minor but long-established part of the holiday, which will be celebrated a week from today. They are well-known enough to be the subject of a long-running shtick in the comic strip "Sally Forth," in which the mother always finds the daughter's chocolate Easter bunny and eats the ears off.  But somebody has to make chocolate Easter bunnies, and one of the prominent suppliers of such is the R. M. Palmer Company of West Reading, Pennsylvania.


Around 4:30 P. M. on Friday, Mar. 24, several employees of the 850 or so in the West Reading facility smelled gas.  Patricia Borges, who had worked in the factory for four years, approached a supervisor and asked if they were going to be evacuated.  She says she was told that such a decision would have to be made by someone higher up, and so Borges went back to work.


Just prior to 5 P. M., a tremendous explosion demolished much of the two-story brick factory and damaged several nearby buildings.  Surrounded by flames, Borges began to run and fell through the floor into a basement vat of chocolate, which extinguished a fire that had attached itself to her arm.  But her feet were injured by the fall.  As the vat began to fill with water from fire-fighting equipment, she managed to crawl onto the lip of the tank and onto the floor, which was flooding with water.  Dazed, she lost track of time until much later, when she heard noises of rescue workers searching the rubble.  She cried out ,and rescuers pulled her from the building and took her to a hospital, where she is being treated for burns and broken bones in her feet.


Seven of her co-workers were killed and about twelve more were injured in the blast, which is under investigation by both state and federal authorities.  A statement on the homepage of the R. M. Palmer Company addressed to "our R. M. Palmer teammates" says "Our thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult time."  But the rest of the site is unchanged, and presents brightly colored ads for Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas candy over the company's slogan "Making Candy Fun."


Lest we lapse into a bathetic mode, let us note that the same employees would be just as dead or injured had they been making 45-caliber ammunition instead of candy.  Factory workers in any facility have a right to expect that their place of employment will not put them at daily risk of life or limb, and while working in a munitions plant might call that expectation into question, you would think making candy would be a fairly safe way of earning a living.  And most of the time, it is.


We will have to await the results of investigations to learn the cause or causes of the explosion, but one thing seems to be pretty clear from Borges' testimony already.  Whoever her supervisor was, he or she made a fatal mistake in not responding to the smell of gas by ordering an immediate shutdown and evacuating the plant.


Such a decision is not to be made lightly, of course.  Especially with continuous-process plants, an emergency shutdown entails hazards of its own and a guaranteed cost in lost product, lost time, and other costly issues.  But against these costs must be weighed the imponderable but real chance that a catastrophic accident may be averted, or at least minimized, by a shutdown and evacuation. 


Different types of manufacturing have different cultures, including different safety cultures.  The petrochemical industry deals constantly with highly flammable and explosive materials under conditions of temperature and pressure that make an accident almost guaranteed if a leak occurs.  Because of this, they have developed a safety culture that to an outsider seems extreme in its emphases on training, precautions, and rigorous rules that can get an employee fired for violating them even if nothing bad results from the violation.


I have no idea what type of safety and training programs were in place at the R. M. Palmer Company.  News reports indicate few recorded violations of OSHA rules in the recent past, but candy manufacturing is not a typically dangerous process.  Gas leaks can occur at any facility where gas is stored or used, however, and procedures should be in place for precautions to be taken in the event of a gas smell.


This incident calls to mind an accident at a chicken processing plant in January of 2021 in which a liquid-nitrogen leak asphyxiated six workers who were apparently not informed of the hazards that were involved.  Again, proper training would have at least minimized the number of fatalities, but in the event, the company was fined over a million dollars for OSHA violations.


Perhaps it's a fantasy, but wouldn't it be nice if there was some sort of rule that required upper-level managers to don working clothes once every few months and take the place of a sick or absent worker in the factories they supervise?  Some managers have worked their way up from the factory floor, and probably wouldn't benefit that much from returning to their old haunts.  But others would have their eyes opened at the conditions that their employees endure, and I think such a policy might do more for safety and other working conditions than any number of OSHA rules. 


Maybe I've mentioned this before, but it's worth saying again.  Back when I was in high school, I attended an Explorer Scout program that met in a telephone exchange building operated by the Bell System.  A plaque was prominently displayed on the wall of the meeting room, and it read "No job is so important and no service is so urgent that we cannot take time to perform our work safely."  The Bell System was far from a perfect organization, but at least it had high aspirations for safety.  And that motto has struck me as being something to keep in mind the next time a safety issue arises and a supervisor has to decide whether to protect workers at some cost.  For all I know, that supervisor may have paid for the bad decision with his or her life.  But the rest of us are still around to learn from it.


Sources:  I referred to Associated Press reports on the accident carried at the sites and  The R. M. Palmer company website is 


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