Contractor Error Cited in Deadly Blast
Federal inspectors are holding a utility contractor primarily responsible for a deadly natural-gas explosion that leveled a Kansas City restaurant and killed one of its employees in February.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited both Heartland Midwest LLC, a communication utilities contracting company, and JJ's Bar and Grill in the accident that killed restaurant employee Megan Cramer, 46, and injured 15 people, including three Heartland workers, on Feb. 19.
OSHA is accusing the contractor of multiple violations and is proposing $161,000 in total fines. OSHA records indicate that one worker was smoking near the pipeline, and an OSHA official called the accident "a tragic event that stemmed from errors on behalf of Heartland Midwest."
The restaurant received one citation and a $2,000 fine.
Heartland Midwest's attorney, Brad Russell, said Friday that the contractor would vigorously contest the case.
"Heartland is disappointed that OSHA has decided to issue ill-founded and unsubstantiated allegations that are neither supported by facts or even law under these circumstances," Russell said in a detailed statement. The contractor's crew "acted safety and properly in performing its work," he said.
Gas Pipeline Punctured
The explosion and fire were caused by an uncontained natural gas leak released from an underground two-inch natural gas transmission pipeline,OSHA said.
"Heartland Midwest LLC's crew operated a horizontal directional drilling machine to lay a fiber-optic cable outside the restaurant when the boring tip of the drilling pipe breached the natural gas supply line," OSHA announced Thursday (Aug. 15).
Founded in 2003, the contractor is based in Olathe, KS, and has about 120 workers in two locations.
Heartland Midwest was cited for a willful violation—OSHA's highest level of infraction—of the General Duty Clause. "Employees were exposed to explosion, toxic chemical exposure and electrocution hazards while boring underground and crossing the paths of existing utilities," OSHA said.
The company was also cited for a willful violation of an OSHA standard for failing to ensure that all crew members were equipped with footwear that protected them from the hazard of electrocution while boring in the vicinity of underground electrical power lines.
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The blast injured 15 people, including three contractor employees.
A willful violation of the General Duty Clause is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for, or plain indifference to, employee safety and health. A willful violation of an OSHA standard is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for, or plain indifference to, the requirements of the OSH Act and standards promulgated under the act.
Heartland Midwest was also cited for three serious violations, including failure to:
In addition, Heartland Midwest was placed in OSHA's Severe Violator Enforcement Program.
"This explosion was a tragic event that stemmed from errors on behalf of Heartland Midwest," said Marcia Drumm, acting regional administrator for OSHA in Kansas City.
"Companies, such as Heartland Midwest, have a responsibility to train employees about the hazards that exist on work sites. It is heartbreaking that a person was killed, and numerous employees were severely injured as a result of these violations."
Contractor: Line Undisclosed
In its statement, Heartland Midwest blamed the blast on an "undisclosed" utility line.
"The Heartland Midwest crew tested the equipment before initiating the work, and subsequent tests have shown that the equipment was in fact operating normally prior to the gas leak," the statement said.
OSHA said the popular restaurant lacked an appropriate evacuation plan.
"Heartland Midwest’s employees were digging at a depth that they in fact intended to dig. Unfortunately, neither [gas line owner and operator] MGE [Missouri Gas Energy] or USIC (the line locating service) had communicated to Heartland Midwest the depth of the gas line or the correct number of utility lines in the area.
"After digging and pot-holing the area in question, Heartland Midwest was able to locate two (2) utility lines that had been marked by USIC. Its employees then made a plan to drill at a safe distance below those utility lines that were seen and identified by the Heartland Midwest crew.
"Unfortunately, a third undisclosed utility line was located below the area that was exposed by Heartland Midwest’s crew."
The company also challenged the regulatory basis for the citations, saying:
"It is important to note that OSHA has issued absolutely no rules, regulations or published guidelines concerning the proper methods or means to safely conduct underground drilling activities. These citations fail to point to any specific method or regulation issued by any local, state or federal entity that Heartland Midwest and its employees failed to comply with."
JJ's Bar and Grill, which owned the popular downtown restaurant, was cited for one serious violation, with proposed penalties of $2,000, for having a deficient emergency action plan.
"The plan did not designate and train workers to assist in a safe and orderly evacuation; nor did it have a procedure to account for and protect workers following an evacuation due to an emergency, such as an explosion or fire," OSHA said.
Serious violations are those that reflect substantial probability of death or serious injury from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.
The restaurant has not been rebuilt.
Gas Line Investigation
The Missouri Public Safety Commission has jurisdiction over MGE and is expected to issue its report in the case in September.