Paint Maker to Pay $950K in Death


Vista Paint Corp. has been ordered to pay $950,000 in the 2011 asphyxiation of two untrained workers in a paint mixing tank full of methylene chloride paint stripper vapors.

Roberto Ramirez Magdariaga, 62, died at the scene Nov. 15, 2011. His co-worker, Gary de la Pena, then 45, survived but was hospitalized for chemical asphyxiation.

Earlier that same year, Vista Paints had been ordered to pay more than $1 million to settle claims of improper handling of paint thinners, solvents and other hazardous waste.

The $950,000 settlement ends a civil lawsuit brought by the Orange County (CA) District Attorney charging the company with illegal handling and use of a toxic hazardous substance, the D.A.'s office announced.

Vista Paint EHS Director John Long released this statement:

"Three years ago we suffered a tragic accident which resulted in the loss of life of one valued employee and the injury to another. Over the past three years, Vista Paint has worked hard on making improvements. We are pleased that a major portion of the settlement will go to the families and for charitable outreach programs in the community."

Alerts and Warnings

The asphyxiations focused national attention on the dangers of methylene chloride paint removers.

Within three months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide warning about such products; California's occupational safety officials immediate followed with a Fatality Alert regarding their use.

Ramirez Magdariaga's death was one of more than a dozen accidental deaths related to methylene chloride use in 2010 and 2011, federal officials said.

Near-Fatal Rescue

Ramirez Magdariaga fell unconscious while cleaning the inside of a 3,000-gallon paint mixing tank at Vista's headquarters in Fullerton, CA. The 7 x 7 x 9-foot tank was a permit-required confined space under California OSHA regulations.

Vista Paint

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

Normally, the cleaner worked with de la Pena, but on this day, he worked alone.

At some point, de la Pena went by the tank, saw his partner unconscious inside, and entered the tank to rescue him but was also overcome by solvent vapors, Cal/OSHA reported later.

(Such unprepared rescue attempts account for a significant share of confined-space deaths, officials say.)

Another co-worker, Librado Becerra, saw de la Pena enter the tank but said the situation had not appeared urgent. About 30 minutes later, Becerra looked in the tank and saw both men lying unconscious at the bottom, but “assumed” they “were taking a break.”

Not wanting to get the workers in trouble, Becerra left and returned 10 minutes later to find the men in the same position. He then summoned another co-worker, a cousin of Magdariaga, to "wake up" the workers. Finally, the two decided to call a supervisor.

EMTs were able to revive de la Pena, who was critically injured. Ramirez Magdariaga never regained consciousness.

OSHA Fines

Cal/OSHA issued citations for 12 serious and three general violations in the incident and proposed fines totaling $159,040.

MethyleneChlorideLabel KenRosenman
Michigan State University

A 2011 investigation by Michigan State University’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, headed by Ken Rosenman, led the CDC to warn about methylene chloride's dangers.

Vista contested the citations, and the case remains open, OSHA records showed Friday (Jan.9).

Prior Injunction

According to the District Attorney, Vista Paint violated a prior injunction (OCSC Case No. 30-2010-00436630) by allowing the unsafe handling and use of methylene chloride. Details of the injunction could not be immediately obtained Friday.

"Vista Paint failed to establish a safe procedure for the use of methylene chloride, and properly train employees and report to regulatory authorities as required when using methylene chloride to protect the safety of persons, property and the environment," the D.A. said.

The settlement requires an annual audit of Vista Paint's facilities by Cal/OSHA. The $950,000 in payments consists of:

  • $340,000 in victim restitution;
  • $296,540 in administrative penalties and investigation costs to Cal/OSHA;
  • $150,000 in charitable contributions "to benefit Orange County citizens and the environment"; and
  • $163,460 in civil penalties to support "future investigations and enforcement of California’s business and professions code laws."

Environmental Settlement

Under the hazardous-waste settlement in January 2011, Vista Paint agreed to pay $1.075 million to six California counties to resolve a lawsuit alleging improper handling of hazardous waste, including paint thinners, solvents and unusable paint materials. 

The suit alleged that hazardous waste from Vista’s stores in those counties was illegally transported to the facility in Fullerton without proper management or disposal.

Editor's Note: This post was updated at 7 a.m. ET Jan. 12, 2015, to add the company's statement on the settlement.


Tagged categories: Chemical stripping; Coatings manufacturers; Enforcement; Fatalities; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Methylene chloride; North America; OSHA; Paint and coatings removal; Solvents

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