The former plant manager and maintenance supervisor at a Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., plastics factory on Feb. 14 pleaded no contest to felony charges stemming from a 2009 water-heater explosion that killed two workers.
Carl Richardson, who was the plant manager at the time of the accident, and Roy Faulkinbury, who was the maintenance supervisor, agreed to pay $450,000 to the victims’ families and to perform 250 hours of community service in lieu of jail time, according to an article in the Orange County Register.
Richardson and Faulkinbury, according to prosecutors, played key roles in the decision to purchase a residential hot-water heater from Lowes rather than use a commercial boiler as a heating source for extrusion operations at the former Solus Industrial Innovations plant, which made plastic conveyor parts. The overtaxed water heater, which had been jury-rigged to accommodate “a complicated manufacturing process it was not built to support,” exploded on March 19, 2009, killing Jose Jimenez and Isidro Echeverria and shutting down the plant for good.
The decisions that led to the fatal 2009 explosion follow the tragic theme of a company prioritizing production and profits over safety. Nevertheless, they’re still hard to fathom.
In 2007, Solus decided to relocate its extrusion operations from its Aston, Pa., plant to Rancho Santa Margarita. Under pressure to get the Rancho Santa Margarita operations up and running quickly, Richardson, Faulkinbury and other plant leaders “discussed the possible delays and high costs that would be required to obtain the necessary permits and operate” an industrial-grade boiler that already was on the premises, according to the state’s complaint.
To bypass the time, trouble and costs of securing the necessary permits and installing a natural gas line, plant management decided to purchase a residential water heater. Using a purchase order that Richardson approved, Faulkinbury ordered a Whirlpool electric water heater from Lowes for $541.66, according to the state.
The plant installed the Whirlpool water heater on Nov. 29, 2007, which was the “firm and final deadline” from corporate to get extrusion operations up and running.
“Because the extrusion operations were not previously engineered for use with the electric water heater, and in order to meet this pressing deadline, maintenance and other personnel were instructed to find parts within the facility to quickly piece together a makeshift stand for the heater and somehow force the residential water heater into the system,” the state asserts.
'Daily Signs of Distress'
Among other horrendous decisions, plant management instructed a maintenance worker to bypass the water heater’s automatic shutoff feature by disabling its temperature-control device and installing a new controller to force the heater to operate at higher temperatures needed to melt plastic. When the water heater’s temperature and pressure relief valve – its last remaining safety feature – blew in October 2008, the plant disregarded the operating manual’s clear instructions to replace the valve. Instead, the plant installed a new heat pump motor.
“From that point on, the heater demonstrated daily, obvious signs of distress,” according to the state’s complaint.
After a safety inspection in February 2009, Emerson Electric Co. – which acquired Solus in December 2008 – briefly shut down the plant. However, when the plant resumed operations, it continued to use the Whirlpool water heater.
“On March 19, 2009, a worker reported a puddle of water under the water heater to supervisors,” according to the state’s complaint. “Workers Isidro Echeverria (age 34) and Jose Jimenez (age 51) responded to the water heater to address the reported water leak and were instantly killed when the [overtaxed] heater exploded at approximately 11:30 p.m. The force of the explosion launched the water heater through the roof of the building, sending equipment and materials flying, injuring at least one other worker and completely destroying a large part of the [Rancho Santa Margarita] facility.”
As the result of an inspection triggered by the accident, Cal/OSHA issued citations for five serious violations and one willful violations, totaling $98,800 in fines.
As for Faulkinbury and Richardson’s fines, the Orange County Register reports that if the two men pay the victims’ families within 90 days and perform a third of their community service by Feb. 16, 2015, “a judge will reduce their charges to misdemeanors and sentence them to probation.”
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office also has filed a civil lawsuit against Solus Industrial Innovations, Emerson Power Transmission Corp. and Emerson Electric for their roles in the 2009 accident.