Unimpressed with the testimony of both an expert witness and a federal compliance officer, a federal commission has thrown out a safety case filed against a pipe contractor in a rupture that injured four people.
The 37-page final order by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission vacates a serious safety citation that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had issued against K.E.R. Enterprises Inc., of Fort Myers, FL. The underground utility excavation contractor does business as Armadillo Underground.
The commission is an independent federal agency that reviews OSHA citations. In this case, the commission took a dim view of the government's own experts.
The case involved an accident at a worksite in Naples, FL, in 2008, when three Armadillo employees and another worker were injured.
Working for Collier County, FL, Armadillo was installing piping for a water line. During the installation, the company was using a mechanical joint restraining gland made by Sigma Corp. to connect sections of pipe.
Just after the leak was stopped, the pipe burst, breaking the foreman's legs.
The restraining gland is a metal ring that fits around the pipe and is secured with two types of bolts: T-bolts and hex-head bolts. After installing a pipe section, Armadillo would perform a hydrostatic pressure test to ensure that the pipes were properly sealed. The county had also hired AIM Engineering to inspect the water line during installation.
The night before the accident, an Armadillo crew supervised by foreman William Davis began preparing for a hydrostatic pressure test by filling a completed section of pipe with water to a pressure of about 165 psi, the commission said.
The next morning, the crew began the test with an observer from AIM. During the test, Davis noticed a small water leak near the restraining gland. Following his company's procedure, he told two crew members to tighten the T-bolts on the gland while the pipe remained pressurized. Using a hand wrench, the two tightened the bolts three-quarters of a revolution and the leak stopped.
But less than a minute later, the pipe burst. Fragments struck Davis, breaking both of his legs, and hit the other three workers at the scene.
OSHA later cited Armadillo, saying the company should have followed the gland manufacturer's instructions to depressurize the pipe before tightening the bolts. AWWA standard C-111 has the same requirement, OSHA said.
A commission judge disagreed, however, finding that OSHA failed to show that the cited condition presented a hazard.
“Armadillo’s actions at the site on the day of the accident were proper and in accordance with industry practice,” the judge wrote. He said there was "insufficient evidence" to support OSHA's claim that the company or Davis "recognized that it was a hazard to tighten T-bolts to stop a small leak without first depressurizing the pipe.”
The judge gave little weight to the OSHA Compliance Officer's inspection file and to a report prepared by OSHA's expert, Michael Shea, both of whom misidentified the bolts tightened on the day of the accident as hex-head bolts.
The judge discounted the testimony of the OSHA inspector and an expert witness.
Unlike T-bolts, hex-head bolts have built-in breakaway tops that signal when the desired tightness is reached, minimizing the possibility of overtightening.
The judge discounted Shea’s opinion that it was “common sense” to depressurize the pipe before tightening the T-bolts, and found that testimony from both the CO and Shea was inconsistent with the procedure for tightening T-bolts described in the AWWA standard.
Meanwhile, the judge credited the testimony of Davis and a sales manager for the gland manufacturer, finding both to be "credible and convincing."
Davis, a longtime employee in the utility pipe industry, and the sales manager both said that it was "typical practice" to tighten T-bolts. The manager said that the gland (Sigma One-Lok) in question was not covered by AWWA standards and that he had never seen a similar explosion in the field.
The commission sided with all of the judge's findings, finding "insufficient evidence to connect the pipe explosion to the cited hazard."
"The evidence shows that it was common practice within the utility industry to tighten T-bolts with wrenches without first depressurizing the pipe," the commission said. "Mr. Shea's 'common sense' argument to the contrary is not persuasive."
The commission went even further, noting training, inspections and other evidence showing that Armadillo "takes safety very seriously."