Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) records contain this robotic description of Smith’s death:
“On February 28, 1989, Employee #1 entered an enclosed vessel 11 ft 6 in. long, 6 ft 4 in. wide, and 10 ft high. The container was open on the top. Employee #1 was cleaning the vessel with trichlorotrifluoroethane, Freon 113. He was in the vessel for approximately 15 minutes then left for approximately 15 to 30 minutes. Upon entering the vessel for a second time, Employee #1 became poisoned and collapsed. He had been in the vessel the second time for less than 5 minutes. The vessel had no mechanical ventilation.”
Smith collapsed and died of asphyxiation by freon gas, according to a Times-Union report at the time. A more detailed narrative of the tragedy and OSHA’s evaluation of TCI’s safety procedures can be read here.
Residents who knew Smith claim that a seal on his protective gear was broken. The horrific news hit his family especially hard, with his 46-year-old father also dying two weeks later, of a heart attack two weeks while driving to help fight a fire on Route 66. His teenaged sister also suffered a non-fatal car crash shortly after Smith’s death.
OSHA listed the event as a “fatality” from “poisoning (systemic).”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Freon 113 “is a colorless, nonflammable liquid” which “does not occur naturally,” and whose production was restricted starting in 1995. The agency states that “Freon 113 enters the body when breathed in with contaminated air or when consumed with contaminated food or water” and “it can also be absorbed through skin contact.”
EPA warns that “breathing large amounts of freon 113 for short periods of time adversely affects the human nervous system,” with effects ranging “from dizziness to incoordination and irregular heart beat.” The agency’s factsheet notes that “The largest users of freon 113 are companies that use the chemical to clean metal surfaces.”A follow-up piece in the T-U reported that “unsafe conditions existed at [TCI] last February when a worker came in contact with a toxic solvent and died.” Catherine Clabby’s article stated:
“In a four-part citation issued against TCI Inc., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration faults the company generally for failing to provide conditions needed to keep workers safe while working with a hazardous material in a confined space. Specifically it faults the company's respiratory protection program, the means by which it chose respiratory equipment, the absence of a written description of how it educates workers about hazards and a failure to inform workers of the effects of contact with some materials.”
OSHA records indicate that the agency initially fined TCI $3,300 for workplace violations which led to the death. Company president David Laskin told the T-U: “We’re basically surprised about the alleged violations. We certaintly are going to take steps to defend ourselves.” While promising that TCI would “suspend” the use of Freon at its plant, Laskin speculated: “I don't know if it was the mask or a pre-existing condition or what.”
Either way, the company challenged the fines and they were reduced to $2,013. (Those who remember Roger Smith believe that the family eventually made a settlement with TCI was out of court, but this is unconfirmed.)
Remarkably, less than six months after this fatal incident, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued the company a go-ahead to conduct a 20-day test burn for a proposed PCB and electronic waste incinerator. The news fired up neighbors and local government, which blocked the plan in spite of DEC’s indulgence of the company. A DEC spokesperson said of the incinerator proposal at the time:
“We feel that at the levels prescribed by TCI, the burn plant poses no significant health risk.”
Today, officials at DEC and the New York State Department of Health are at the forefront of reassuring the public that the massive conflagration at TCI was safe, and no further testing for dioxins should be done.