The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on Thursday cited three construction companies and 14 site contractors for 371 alleged workplace safety violations, and issued a total of $16.6 million in penalties. The fines follow an investigation into the causes of February’s deadly natural gas explosion at the Kleen Energy power plant construction site in Middletown, Conn. The explosion killed six workers and injured 50 others.

"The millions of dollars in fines levied pale in comparison to the value of the six lives lost and numerous other lives disrupted," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. "However, the fines and penalties reflect the gravity and severity of the deadly conditions created by the companies managing the work at the site. No operation and no deadline is worth cutting common sense safety procedures. Workers should not sacrifice their lives for their livelihoods."

On Feb. 7, a gas blow operation was being performed in which flammable natural gas was pumped under high pressure through new fuel gas lines to remove debris. During this operation, an extremely large amount of natural gas was vented into areas where it could not easily disperse, OSHA said. Welding and other work was being performed nearby, creating an extremely dangerous situation. The explosion reportedly occurred when the gas contacted an ignition source.

"These employers blatantly disregarded well-known and accepted industry procedures and their own safety guidelines in conducting the gas blow operation in a manner that exposed workers to fire and explosion hazards," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Dr. David Michaels. "We see this time and time again across industries when companies deliberately ignore safety precautions in the interest of completing jobs quickly, and workers end up being killed or seriously hurt."

In connection with the explosion, OSHA has cited O&G Industries Inc., the project’s general contractor; Keystone Construction and Maintenance Inc., which was in charge of the piping and oversaw the gas blow; and Bluewater Energy Services Inc., the commissioning and start-up contractor for the plant.

All three companies were cited for performing the gas blow procedure in a way that exposed workers to fire and explosion hazards, including the configuration of the vent pipes in close proximity to scaffolding and other structures, and the failure to remove non-essential personnel from the area. Citations were also issued for failing to install and use electrical equipment in accordance with its listing and labeling, allowing welding work during the gas blows and failing to train employees to recognize hazards associated with gas blows.

O&G has been issued 119 willful, 17 serious, and three other-than-serious citations with penalties totaling $8,347,000. Keystone Construction and Maintenance was issued 94 willful, 16 serious, and one other-than-serious citation with fines of $6,686,000. Bluewater Energy Services was issued 12 willful citations and eight serious citations totaling $896,000.

In addition to the three main companies cited today, 14 subcontractors—including Siemens Energy, which supplied gas turbines and provided limited construction support services, and the Worley Parsons Group, which designed and engineered the Kleen Energy facility for O&G —have been cited for additional serious hazards with penalties totaling $686,000.

OSHA defines a willful violation as one committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health. A serious citation is issued when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

OSHA said that as a result of the deadly incident, it would issue a warning letter to natural gas power plant operators regarding the “dangerous practice of cleaning fuel gas piping using natural gas, and the need to ensure that safety procedures and practices are implemented to prevent these disasters.”

Those practices and procedures include the venting of gas vertically and above all structures; the elimination of all ignition sources if a flammable gas is being used; the removal of all non-essential workers from the site; and the monitoring of air quality during and after completion of the blows. The letter also advises on alternatives such as the use of nonflammable, nonexplosive media to clean the pipes.

Sources: OSHA, POWERnews