August 6, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 4Comment

Back in February, an explosion at the Kleen Energy Systems plant in Middletown, Connecticut killed six workers and injured others. Workers had been finishing construction on the natural gas power plant, and natural gas under high pressure was being pumped through new fuel lines to remove debris. Much of this gas was vented into areas where it couldn’t disperse properly, and welding was occurring at the same time. Gas contacted an ignition source, and the resulting explosion killed Peter Chetulis, Ronald J. Crabb, Raymond Dobratz, Kenneth Haskell, Roy Rushton, and Chris Walters.

Yesterday, OSHA proposed $16.6 million in penalties for 371 alleged workplace safety violations related to this disaster. Three construction companies and 14 subcontractors were cited. OSHA has cited O&G Industries (the general contractor), Keystone Construction and Maintenance Inc. (which oversaw the gas blow) and Bluewater Energy Services (the plant’s startup contractor) for “performing the gas blow procedure in a way that exposed workers to fire and explosion hazards, including the configuration of the vent pipes in close proximity to scaffolding and other structures, and the failure to remove non-essential personnel from the area,” in addition to other citations.

As with the recent string of grain elevator tragedies, OSHA has coupled a large proposed fine with a forceful letter to others in the industry:

As a result of the deadly incident at the Kleen Energy plant, OSHA will be issuing a warning letter to natural gas power plant operators regarding the dangerous practice of cleaning fuel gas piping using natural gas, and the need to ensure that safety procedures and practices are implemented to prevent these disasters. Such practices and procedures include: the venting of gas vertically and above all structures; the elimination of all ignition sources if a flammable gas is being used; the removal of all non-essential workers from the site; and the monitoring of air quality during and after completion of the blows. The letter also advises on alternatives such as the use of nonflammable, nonexplosive media to clean the pipes.

Secretary Solis’s commentary puts the citations in context:

“The millions of dollars in fines levied pale in comparison to the value of the six lives lost and numerous other lives disrupted,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. “However, the fines and penalties reflect the gravity and severity of the deadly conditions created by the companies managing the work at the site. No operation and no deadline is worth cutting common sense safety procedures. Workers should not sacrifice their lives for their livelihoods.”

In other news:

NPR: Mexico’s drug cartels threaten journalists who report too much about drug-related violence, and eight reporters have been gunned down this year.

BBC: A collapse at a copper mine in Chile’s Atacama region has trapped 34 miners. (If you read Spanish, La Tercera has extensive coverage.)

New York Daily News: Several Ground Zero workers have expressed concerns that the negotiated settlement won’t adequately cover their healthcare needs, and may opt out of it. Ninety-five percent of the plaintiffs must accept the offer in order for the settlement to go forward.

El Paso Times: Several former employees of the Asarco smelter in El Paso, which was found to have been burning hazardous waste 1989 and 1997, have become ill and are seeking details about what they would have been exposed to while working there.

Winnipeg Free Press: Researchers interviewed healthcare workers from 13 facilities in the US and Canada and found that healthcare workers’ use of surgical gloves is associated with a 66% reduction in the risk of needlestick and other “sharps” injuries.

4 thoughts on “Occupational Health News Roundup

  1. I was shocked to read about the procedure using natural gas to purge the fuel lines without first purging the lines with nitrogen. That strikes me as the most fundamentally stupid thing I have ever heard of. And now from what you have written here it sounds like they were venting into closed spaces within a building, what would prompt someone to do that. I think that this behavior should result in criminal not civil penalty. I certainly hope this is not standard practice.

  2. Yes, nitrogen would work. Even something as simple as compressed air would. But there was natural gas available, and hooked up ready to go. Using it was likely as simple as opening a couple of valves.

    And time is money … the boss is always on my ass to get he job done faster. I really need this job. If I impress the boss he might keep me on to run the shop when everyone else is laid off waiting for the next job. We used natural gas last time. Saves an hour or two. Maybe $1000. That’s real money where I come from.

    I’ve been on such industrial construction sites. Time, keeping your job, the possibility of being one of essential people who get kept on between jobs, maybe even the use of the company truck when everyone else is laid-off, are always on your mind. To gain status you have to push the job. Save time and money. Get the job in early and under budget.

    A good supervisor, inculcated by the company management, will put the brakes on really unsafe practices. But I’ve been there when the supervisor tells the foreman to ‘do it, do it fast, don’t tell me how you are going to do it. I don’t want to know’ and heads out to a remote corner of the site have a coffee and a smoke.

    If it works he is all smiles and backslapping. If it blows up he claims he had warned them to not take such risks because he is always a ‘safety first kind of guy’. With any luck anyone hurt will fail the drug test and won’t be covered by the company insurance. Always pays to have a few discreet stoners for risky jobs. You always have to give them a down-low warning ten days before the ‘random’, once-a-year drug test so they can stay on hired.

    Safety meetings are another good way to avoid paying off injury claims. Every safety meeting is well documented as to what was said and who was there. Sometimes they get the men to sign off an attendance sheet. The safety meeting legally sets company policy and procedure. If the workers, with a wink and a smile from the management, violate policy the company can’t beheld responsible.

    It isn’t iron-clad protection but it gives something for the company lawyers to work with. Another mitigating factor and reason to appeal any adverse judgments. Millions in fines can be settled for ten cents on the dollar if you play your cards right and get the case heard by the right judge on appeal.

    If the company is large enough you can always buy a senator and have him lean on the regulators. In some cases they can pass a law to set aside or limit any fines in return for ‘reform of industry practices’. If the company is a major player/employer in the state or locality you can always get traction claiming that ‘outrageous and punitive fines and regulations’ will drive you out and back it with a plan to leave to another state where they are friendlier to business.

    SA sixteen million dollars fine sounds impressive. Odds are that in the end they pay far less. Such fines, and a few well placed campaign contributions, are often just ‘the cost of doing business’.

  3. Art, thank you for the elucidation on the actual practices. I understand that compressed air would work for clearing lines of debris. I still think that using using an inert gas should be required for any fuel line with appreciable volume so that when fuel gas is supplied to the line there is no danger of creating an explosive mixture. And I would hope that special attention would be paid to where the gas is vented in the case of using fuel gas. Be safe.

  4. Thanks for the perspective, Art! And it has been noted that in the Kleen Energy situation, there were incentives to finish the job quickly.

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