OSHA fines biodiesel manufacturer $70,000 over hydrogen explosion that injured four
07 March 2016
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Renewable Energy Group (REG) $70,000 over a hydrogen gas explosion and fire that injured four workers at its Geismar biodiesel plant in Louisiana last September.
REG, a biofuels producer headquartered in Iowa, was also cited with three ‘willful’ safety violations — OSHA’s most severe category of violation — over the company’s failure to ensure a hazardous and flammable chemical was no longer in a plant pipeline that was under repair, according to a citation by OSHA Area Director Dorinda Folse on March 3.
A willful violation means the company demonstrated ‘intentional disregard’ or ‘plain indifference’ to employee safety and health, the OSHA field operations manual says.
In the citation, OSHA gave REG until March 18 to correct the violations. Company officials said they have been cooperating with state and federal authorities looking into the explosion but plan to contest OSHA’s fine and the citation.
A State Police investigation, completed independently of the federal probe into the September explosion, found REG workers failed to take recommended safety steps to ensure highly flammable hydrogen gas was no longer flowing from a storage tank into a high-pressure line that was being repaired.
The hydrogen gas, which is invisible and odorless, escaped when REG workers and Excel Group contractors took apart valves in the line for upgrades after they believed them to be free of gas. The gas, continuing to flow out, caught fire and exploded, police said.
As in the State Police investigation, which was completed earlier this year, the OSHA citation revolved around alleged failures in lockout/tagout procedures designed to ensure a valve or other equipment has been locked or clearly marked, so other workers know it is closed.
In the citation, OSHA found REG failed to develop safe work practices related to this lockout/tagout process, did not ensure those procedures were written down clearly and did not ensure workers had an effective process to verify when valves were locked out.
In the State Police investigation, troopers reported that an REG lawyer acknowledged a key valve intended to shut off the gas flow had been left open.
The explosion was the second at REG’s Geismar facility in 2015. State Police cited REG with careless handling of a hazardous material for the Sept. 3 explosion but did not fine the company.