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Stricken Tank Workers Left to ‘Nap’; Paint Maker Fined $159K

Thursday, May 17, 2012

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Co-workers of two unconscious men slumped at the bottom of a paint mixing tank full of toxic vapors “assumed” the men “were taking a break” and did not seek help because they did not want to get the men in trouble, California safety officials report.

By the time help arrived, Roberto Ramirez Magdariaga, 62, was dead and Gary de la Pena, 45, was near death from asphyxiation, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) recounts in a new narrative of the accident Nov. 15 at Vista Paint Corp.’s manufacturing facility and headquarters in Fullerton, CA.

 A co-worker assumed Roberto Magdariago, 62, was napping on the job inside this tank.

 CA Department of Health

A co-worker assumed Roberto Magdariago, 62, was napping on the job inside this 7 x 7 x 9-foot tank at Vista Paint Co. in Fullerton, CA. Magdariago had asphyxiated from methylene chloride vapors.

The narrative accompanies citations newly issued against the company for 12 serious and three general violations. The citations carry fines totaling $159,040.

Company Response

“We take this tragedy very seriously,” John Long, Vista Paint’s Director of Corporate Environmental, Health & Safety, said in a statement Thursday (May 17).

“The Vista Paint manufacturing facility has maintained a good safety record over the past 50 years. We are working diligently with OSHA, outside safety consultants, and internal staff in reviewing all processes and training procedures in order to enhance our employees’ safety.”

How it Happened

According to Cal/OSHA documents, the accident unfolded this way:

Magdariaga had the title “Filler 1” but acted as a utility worker, performing various tasks throughout the manufacturing plant. De la Pena was a maintenance mechanic who was also periodically assigned to clean paint mixing tanks (Let Down Tanks) with Magdariaga. Both men had worked for Vista for more than eight years.

 Founded in 1956 in Stanton, CA, Vista Paint Corp. operates 48 stores. The accident occurred at its headquarters in Fullerton, CA.

 Vista Paint Corp.

Founded in 1956 in Stanton, CA, Vista Paint Corp. operates 48 stores. The accident occurred at its headquarters in Fullerton, CA.

On the day of the accident, Magdariaga was assigned to clean one of the 3,000-gallon tanks that two other employees, paint makers Librado Becerra and Isaias Magdariaga, had started cleaning a few days earlier. (The Magdariagas are cousins.)

Usually, Roberto Magdariaga worked with de la Pena, but on this day, he worked alone in the tank, which was nine feet deep and seven feet square.

About 1:15 p.m., Cal/OSHA said, de la Pena looked into the tank and saw Magdariaga “apparently unconscious, and entered to perform a rescue.” (Such unprepared rescue attempts account for a significant share of confined-space deaths.)

‘Taking a Break’

Becerra, who was working nearby, happened to see de la Pena go into the tank but said he did not “seem to be in any urgent situation.” About 30 minutes later, Becerra looked in the tank and saw de la Pena and Robert Magdariaga “sitting/lying down in the tank and presumed they were taking a break,” according to Cal/OSHA.

Becerra then left and, 10 minutes later, returned to find the men “still in the same positions” in the tank, “but thought they were asleep.”

Becerra then called over Isaias Magdariaga, who was also working in the area, and told him “to wake his cousin up, to keep him from getting in trouble with the supervisor.”

Isaias Magdariaga then went to the tank, looked at the men inside but did not call to them, and returned to Becerra. The two then called a supervisor, who told them to call 911 and went to get the plant manager.

According to Cal/OSHA, the plant manager, supervisor and two workers then entered the tank to pull the two men out. When EMTs arrived, they revived de la Pena but were unable to revive his partner. De la Pena was hospitalized for four days for chemical asphyxiation.

Paint Stripper, Unused Respirator Found

Authorities said the tank contained a five-gallon container that held about a gallon of methylene chloride paint stripper. Neither tank cleaner had been instructed in the use of the product, Cal/OSHA said.

Authorities also found a half-face air-purifying respirator in the tank, although neither employee was wearing a respirator. An exhaust hose was tied off at the four-foot level of the nine-foot-deep tank, they said.

Cal/OSHA Violations

The 12 serious violations accuse Vista Paint of a wide variety of lapses in:

• Respirator use, including lack of training, evaluation and fit testing;

• Permit-required confined-space operations, including lack of training, ventilation, atmospheric monitoring, supervision, egress and rescue requirements; and

• Safe use of methylene chloride, including inadequate training, respiratory protection, use of engineering controls and establishment of a regulated space.

Three other violations allege:

• Failure to notify the state that the company was using methylene chloride, a regulated carcinogen;

• Failure to post Danger signs or “any other equally effective” alert near the tank about the hazards of working in a confined space; and

• Failure to evaluate and address methylene chloride hazards.

The accident spurred Cal/OSHA to issue a Fatality Alert in March about the danger of working with methylene chloride paint strippers. That alert came just two weeks after a similar warning by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has linked the stripper to 13 accidental deaths in two years.

Company Record

In January 2011, Vista Paint agreed to pay more than $1 million to six counties in California as part of a settlement of a lawsuit alleging improper handling of hazardous waste, including paint thinners, solvents and unusable paint materials. 

The settlement pertained to all Vista Paint retail stores in those six counties. The suit alleges that hazardous waste from Vista’s stores was illegally transported to the facility in Fullerton without proper management or disposal. 

Vista Paint agreed to pay a total of $1.075 million, including $848,000 in civil penalties and funding for environmental projects. The company admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.

In 2008, the company paid a $450 fine for three other-than-serious violations (reduced from a $600 fine and four violations) for an accident at one of its stores in Palm Desert, CA.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Confined space; Health and safety; Methylene chloride; Tanks and vessels

Comment from Bill Connor, Jr., (5/18/2012, 2:06 PM)

Aside from the tragic deaths of untrained workers one of the penalties here drives me nuts. I can load up a truck with 200 gallons of "paint" and transport it anywhere I need to. However that same material at the end of the job when I need to dispose of the left over materials unchanged in chemical composition now becomes "hazardous waste" and the transportation of this material must be performed by licensed haulers at a much higher cost. Same stuff just a different name. In this case the destination is not some gulch or gully but back to the factory for recycling.

Comment from Anna Jolly, (5/21/2012, 11:42 AM)

This is pitiful. These people worked there for eight years and did not know better. This guy thought they were asleep. The only reason Vista has a good safety record is because they have been lucky and I bet no one reported accidents. These deaths make me angry and disgusted.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (5/30/2012, 9:00 AM)

Bill - if you ever need to transport such "waste" in Texas, I suggest having a look at the "Universal Waste" rules. Paint can be classified as Universal Waste and reduce the transport hassle.

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