The explosion was caused by an overpressured coke oven manifold, which released coke oven gas in an enclosed area where it ignited. The flare stack, used to burn off excess coke oven gas, failed. OSHA determined that this exposed Tonawanda Coke employees to asphyxiation from the release of gas, and explosion and fire hazards. OSHA concluded that the company failed to inspect and maintain safety systems properly to ensure their effectiveness.
“Had this company taken proper precautions and ensured that safety systems were working, this explosion would not have occurred. Equally disturbing, however, are the additional, preventable hazards the employer allowed at the plant,” said Michael Scime, OSHA’s area director in Buffalo. “These conditions exposed workers to potential amputations, falls, crushing injuries, injury by unexpectedly activated machinery and an inability to exit the workplace swiftly if fire, explosions or other emergencies arose.”
The additional hazards included missing guardrails; obstructed emergency exit routes and a defective exit door; failure to lockout machines’ power sources before performing maintenance; use of uninspected cranes, lifting ropes and unguarded saws; improperly stored oxygen cylinders; and failure to determine employees’ levels of exposure to the hazardous substance hexavalent chromium and training them about its hazards.
These conditions resulted in the issuance of 15 serious violations with $90,100 in fines. OSHA issues serious citations when death or serious physical harm could result from hazards about which the employer knew or should have known.
The company was issued two repeat violations, with $70,000 in fines, for recurring hazards, failing to train employees in lockout procedures and not certifying inspections of lockout procedures. OSHA had cited Tonawanda Coke for similar hazards in October 2010. The company was fined $1,000 for failing to provide voltage markings on electrical equipment.
Temporary employment agency Kirchner is also fined as part of the investigation; one of the three injured was a temporary worker.