Explosion at Tonawanda Coke Corp. Results in Serious Safety Violations and $161,100 in US DOL OSHA Fines

Tonawanda Coke Corp. and Kirchner LLC face a total of $161,100 in fines from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration after an explosion on January 31, 2014 that caused the collapse of brick walls, damage to electrical equipment, and injuries to two permanent employees and one temporary employee.

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 over gas, failed. OSHA determined that this exposed employees to asphyxiation from the release of the gas, and explosion and fire hazards. The company failed to inspect and maintain safety system properly.

“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 inspected cranes, lifting ropes and unguarded saws, improperly stored oxygen cylinders, and failure to determine employees’ level of exposure to the hazardous substance hexavalent chromium and training the employee about its hazards.

OSHA issued 15 serious violations with $90,100 in fines. OSHA only issues serious citations when death or serious physical harm could result from the conditions and which the employer knew or should have known about them.

Two repeat violations were also issued, with $70,000 in fines, for recurring hazards, failing to train employees in lockout procedures and not certifying inspections of lockout procedures. OSHA cited the company on similar hazards in October of 2010.

Tonawanda Coke produces foundry coke, a coal byproduct. Kirchner LLC is a company that provides temporary workers. The companies have 15 business days from receipt of their citations and proposed penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

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