Families of four of the six workers killed last year in a grain-dust explosion in Atchison, Kan., have filed wrongful-death lawsuits in state court against Bartlett Grain Co. LP. The lawsuits name Bob Knief, a Bartlett senior vice president at the time, and other Bartlett employees as Defendants. The cases were brought on behalf of four of the employees who were killed, all of whom were in their early 20s, in state court. The young men were all killed in the explosion on Oct. 29, 2011. Two other workers killed in the explosion — grain inspectors — were not named in this suit. It was alleged in the suit that Knief and other unnamed Bartlett employees “issued directives that displayed a knowing or voluntary disregard” for the safety and health of the workers who were killed.
The allegations are similar to charges made in April by federal safety officials, who accused Bartlett of willfully ignoring workplace rules before the explosion. They also proposed $406,000 in fines. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said at the time that the “deaths of these six workers could have been prevented had the grain elevator’s operators addressed hazards that are well-known in this industry.” In April, Knief, now Bartlett’s president, said that the government’s allegations were “flawed,” and he said he took “extreme exception” to charges that any workplace violations were willful, as the government alleged.
The company has contested the proposed fines and will make its case in an administrative hearing. The company has now issued a statement very much like the one it issued after the incident. It added that “we continue to believe that Bartlett employees acted reasonably and appropriately at all times.” The lawsuits allege that the elevator was at or near capacity at the time of the explosion and that daily train transfers were required to keep the elevator operating. According to the families, workers were routinely required to work 60 to 80 hours a week.
In addition, the families allege that the elevator had no emergency action plan or adequate alarm system and workers were not properly trained to get rid of the combustible dust that led to the explosion. It is alleged further that dust cleaning practices and electrical connections at the plant were unsafe and inadequate. About a month before the lawsuit was filed, Bartlett sent the victims’ families a letter informing them of a memorial the company planned to build in Atchison to remember the six dead. The memorial plan has drawn criticism from the family of at least one victim. They believe building a memorial may be a good thing, but compensating the families is much more important. I totally agree!
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