OSHA has levied $16.6 million in fines against companies involved in a power plant blast that killed six workers and injured 50 others. The fines, the third-highest imposed for a single accident, stem from 371 alleged safety and workplace violations at the Kleen Energy Systems natural gas power plant in Middletown, Conn. The companies “blatantly disregarded well-known and accepted industry procedures and their own safety guidelines,” the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in announcing the fines on August 5th. U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis had this to say concerning the fines:
They simply and tragically refused to use common sense. The deaths and injuries could have been prevented had the companies placed safety first.
The under-construction facility exploded February 7th when something ignited natural gas and air that had accumulated in tight quarters during a “gas blow,” a procedure in which high-pressure gas is forced through pipes to clean them. The ignition source hasn’t been identified, but welders were working nearby and gas and diesel heaters were left running during the gas blow on that chilly Sunday. OSHA officials said this defies safety rules and common sense.
The largest proposed fine levied in the case is $8.3 million against O&G Industries of Torrington, the general contractor. Keystone Construction & Maintenance of Rowley, Massachusetts, which oversaw the gas blow, was fined almost $6.7 million. Sixteen other companies also face potential fines, ranging from $7,000 against several small contractors to more than $896,000 against Bluewater Energy Solutions of Acworth, Georgia, which was supposed to oversee the safety and training for the gas blow. Keystone and O&G Industries said in separate statements that they will contest the proposed citations, and that they strongly disagreed with OSHA’s conclusions.
The fines represent the third-largest total imposed by OSHA for a single accident; the first two were both against oil giant BP for a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers at a Texas refinery. OSHA officials said that the large companies involved in the construction project were rushing to complete the plant and that some of the companies stood to collect millions of dollars in bonuses for an early finish. The rush was not specifically pinpointed as the cause of the ill-fated gas blow, but according to Secretary Solis some victims’ family members raised concerns about it when she talked with them. In this regard, she observed:
They were alluding to the fact that (the workers) were exhausted and that they were overworked, and there wasn’t a good explanation except to hurry up with the work. In some instances, I was led to believe that safety may not have been the highest priority.
OSHA is also sending warning letters about the dangers of gas blows to companies involved in the 125 gas-fired turbine power plants currently planned or under construction, according to OSHA head David Michaels. OSHA can’t immediately ban the procedure permanently, according to Mr. Michaels, because it would take years to change federal standards that govern those workplace practices. An emergency ban could only last for six months — and only if OSHA could show that a moratorium is the only option.
Most experts agree that gas blows can be performed safely, but only if done correctly. When they aren’t done properly, tragic consequences can result. OSHA hopes the warning letter and publicity about fines in the Kleen Energy case motivate other power plant builders to use safer pipe-cleaning procedures. Workplace safety groups say air or nitrogen would be safer than natural gas. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which also reviewed this blast, said gas blows are inherently unsafe and has urged companies to use other practices. Civil lawsuits are being filed for ten injured and deceased workers against those responsible for the blast.
Source: Associated Press
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