September 9, 2010 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 4Comment

In early August OSHA proposed citations and penalties to 17 employers involved in the explosion at the Kleen Energy plant that killed six workers. (See previous post here.) The deadly blast was caused by ignition of natural gas being used to clean out debris from pipes, a process called a “gas blow.” OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels said the practice of using highly flammable methane gas for “gas blows” is inherently dangerous. He stopped short of saying that OSHA would (or could) ban it, a recommendation made earlier this summer to OSHA by the Chemical Safety Board. Instead, Dr. Michaels promised swift non-regulatory action in the form of a letter to power plant operators warning them of the risks associated with the practice. That letter, dated August 27, 2010, has now been sent to employers involved in the building or renovation of gas-powered electric generation plants.

The assistant secretary’s letter says:

“OSHA strongly recommends the use of non-flammable, non-explosive alternative media when it is necessary to use gas to clean pipes. …The intent of this letter is to ensure your knowledge of the inherent dangers of fuel system gas blows as well as the safety requirements OSHA expects to be observed. If OSHA finds violations of those requirements, it will strongly consider citing for willful violations that carry a maximum $70,000 civil penalty. If any employee dies as a result of an explosion associated with a gas blow…OSHA will consider referring the incident to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution…”

I hope OSHA sent the letter certified mail and addressed it to top official responsible for each plant. It’s time to start holding decision-makers accountable for actions that put workers lives in known peril.

4 thoughts on “OSHA puts employers on notice about “inherently dangerous” gas blows

  1. Me, too. We both know that a lot of workers might not even know that this work is going on around them, or if they do, they’ve been told it can be done “safely.” Yeah, right.

  2. More detail on the practice can be found at

    The recommendation by CSB seems a little circular – gas vented in a “safe” place, but every place is safe until it isn’t. Question is why compressed air, which has to be cheaper, isn’t used; maybe because the compressed air would eventually have to be purged with natural gas, and there would be an explosive mixture at the gas-air interface?

    Also, boilers are exempted from PSM.

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