The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed $16.6 million in fines against 17 contractors for a power-plant explosion that killed six people in February, but the agency has no plans to ban the practice that caused the blast.
The fine is the third-largest OSHA has recommended in a single accident, reports said.
OSHA announced Thursday that it was citing three construction companies and 14 site contractors for 371 alleged workplace safety violations following its investigation into the natural gas explosion Feb. 7 at the Kleen Energy Systems LLC power plant construction site in Middletown, CT. The explosion killed six workers and injured 50 others.
The explosion occurred during a gas blow operation, in which flammable natural gas was pumped under high pressure through new fuel gas lines to remove debris. “During the operation, an extremely large amount of natural gas was vented into areas where it could not easily disperse,” OSHA said. “Welding and other work was being performed nearby, creating an extremely dangerous situation. The explosion occurred when the gas contacted an ignition source.”
In a statement released with the citations, OSHA Administrator David Michaels said in a statement that the companies had “blatantly disregarded well-known and accepted industry procedures and their own safety guidelines in conducting the gas blow operation in a manner that exposed workers to fire and explosion hazards.”
U.S. CSB urges ban
The explosion also triggered a separate investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which voted June 28 to issue 18 urgent recommendations to OSHA and others, aimed at halting the practice.
“The CSB found that the practice of gas blows is inherently unsafe,” the board said in a statement. It noted that “several safe alternatives … available to the industry are already in use, such as compressed air, nitrogen and the use of a solid cleaning device propelled by compressed air that is referred to as a pig.”
Some companies already ban the practice, and General Electric has told its customers that it will not support the practice, CSB said.
OSHA: More study needed
Nevertheless, after OSHA issued its findings Thursday, the agency said it would not act on the practice.
"We would love to be able to ban it, but we can't," said Michaels, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
Michaels also said he would not issue an emergency order prohibiting gas blows until the agency studied the matter further. Michaels said OSHA had issued nine emergency standards since it was created in 1971, and five were struck down, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The CSB contends that OSHA has the authority to act on the practice. "I believe there should be an emergency response to an emergency situation," CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso told the Journal.
On Friday, OSHA released a statement by Michaels saying he was “examining the CSB's recommendations and speaking with experts to determine which way to move on gas blow operations.”
“It is inherently dangerous, but we've looked at materials that state that it can be done safely if the proper procedures are followed,” Michaels said.
“Our position right now is, if you're going to perform gas blow operations, it must be done with great care and following all appropriate safety procedures, or choose an alternative.”
OSHA said it would issue a warning letter to natural-gas power-plant operators regarding the practice “and the need to ensure that safety procedures and practices are implemented to prevent these disasters.”
Citations and penalties
Cited in the explosion were O&G Industries Inc., the project’s general contractor; Keystone Construction and Maintenance Inc., which was in charge of the piping and oversaw the gas blow; and Bluewater Energy Services Inc., the commissioning and startup contractor for the plant.
All three were cited for performing the gas blow procedure in a way that exposed workers to fire and explosion hazards. Citations were also issued for failing to install and use electrical equipment in accordance with its listing and labeling, allowing welding work during the gas blows, and failing to train employees to recognize hazards associated with gas blows.
In addition, OSHA cited 14 subcontractors for additional hazards and proposed penalties totaling $686,000. Cited were:
• Ducci Electrical Contractors Inc.
• Instrument Science and Technology
• United Anco
• Smedley Crane
• API Construction Inc.
• North American Energy Services
• Siemens Energy
• Team Industrial Services
• Tucker Mechanical
• Worley Parsons
• Berlin Steel
• Barnhart Northeast
The companies have 15 days to appeal the citations, and appeals are expected. To view all of the citations, visit http://www.osha.gov/doc/kleen_energy/kleen.html.