UPDATED 9 p.m.
Eleven employees at the Guardian West Flex-n-Gate facility in Urbana have been taken to hospitals in Urbana after they were exposed to a cloud of sulfuric acid.
Fire Chief Mike Dilley said firefighters were called to the facility at 2:48 p.m. Wednesday after a truck driver released the sulfuric acid into the plant when he unloaded a product in the back of the facility.
Dilley said the truck driver apparently didn’t complete the hookup correctly. He was not among the victims taken to the hospital.
Firefighters used fans to clear the sulfuric-acid vapors out of the building.
Dilley said sulfuric acid is an irritant to the human respiratory system.
“If somebody inhales sulfuric acid, it can irritate the nose, throat and lungs,” Dilley said. “A person would have to inhale quite a bit of sulfuric acid to be affected.”
Dilley said on Wednesday evening that he has no information on how much sulfuric acid was involved in the incident at Guardian West.
“The incident created a misty-looking vapor cloud, but the cloud had largely dissipated by the time we (the fire department) got there, and after we used a fan, the cloud was gone.”
Dilley said the area where the spill took place had been ventilated and that operations resumed at the facility at about 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Dilley said the fire department has no information on the identity of the truck driver, and nobody from the fire department talked to the truck driver.
Dilley said the truck driver did not work for Guardian West, but worked for an independent trucking company that delivered product there.
Dilley had no information on the name of the company that employed the truck driver.
Dilley said the fire department has no information on the identity of the 11 people who were sent to the hospital or the medical condition of any of them.
Dilley said the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prohibits private companies like Guardian West from providing information about the identity of victims to a fire department if the fire department had not acquired that information by the time the victims were taken to the hospital.
Calls to Guardian West for comment were not returned on Wednesday evening, but company spokesman Jim Woodcock issued the following statement:
“We understand that 11 employees were taken to the hospital, and our concern for their health and the safety for all of our associates is paramount. The plant has been fully ventilated and is now reopened. Tonight and in the days ahead, the company will closely look into what caused the fumes, including whether required protocols for outside suppliers were followed. We will not comment further until a thorough investigation of this matter is complete.
“We would like to offer our thanks to the Urbana Fire Department and the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District for their assistance, service and commitment.”
All 150 workers who were in the plant at the time of the accident were evacuated.
The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District sent three buses to the plant to provide a place for the workers to stay cool.
Dilley said that Wednesday’s incident is not related in any way to problems that led the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to fine the company $57,000 in June for “serious” violations affecting workers at the Urbana plant.
An OSHA spokeswoman had said in June that workers at Guardian the plant were exposed to dangerous chemicals and did not receive proper training, examinations or monitoring from their employer.