OSHA Proposes $1.4 Million in Penalties in Connection with Fatal Explosion in Houston

On Jan. 4, OSHA issued CES Environmental Services Inc. with willful and serious citations totaling $1,477,500 following an investigation into a fatal explosion at the company's Griggs Road facility in Houston.

In July 2009, an employee cleaning a tank at the facility was killed in an explosion when an altered piece of equipment ignited flammable vapors inside the tank. The fatality was the third death in less than a year at this employer's facilities. Two hydrogen sulfide exposure deaths at a related facility, Port Arthur Chemical & Environmental Services LLC (PACES), occurred in December 2008 and April 2009.

"Proper precaution prevents deaths," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. "Employers should take steps to eliminate hazards and provide a safe working environment for their workers. That is the law."

Based on the most recent investigation, OSHA has issued 15 willful citations with proposed penalties totaling $1,050,000, alleging that 15 pieces of electrical equipment were unsafe to use in the tank wash area due to the presence of flammable and combustible vapors. Two additional willful citations with proposed penalties totaling $125,000 have been issued. One alleges that CES failed to ventilate tanks in which employees were working, exposing the workers to toxic atmospheric hazards. The other alleges that CES stored flammable and reactive chemicals together, which posed fire and explosion hazards.

In addition, OSHA has issued 54 serious violations with proposed penalties totaling $302,500. These include allegations that CES failed to implement all aspects of the process safety management standard; provide proper respiratory protection, confined space rescue equipment and adequate fall protection; properly install and maintain boiler equipment; implement an emergency response plan and adequate energy control procedures; train powered industrial truck operators; guard and to anchor machinery adequately; store compressed gas cylinders safely; and label hazardous chemicals.

A willful citation is characterized by an employer's intentional disregard of the standards or plain indifference to employee safety and health. A violation is characterized as serious when death or serious physical harm could result if an accident were to occur as the result of a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

OSHA previously cited PACES following the Dec.18, 2008, and the April 14, 2009, fatalities and proposed penalties of $16,600 and $207,800, respectively. Both of those fatalities occurred in Port Arthur, Texas. Those citations were contested and are being litigated before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

CES and PACES together employ 155 workers. CES has 15 business days from receipt of the latest citations to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA's area director or contest the findings before the independent review commission.

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