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US paper mill wilfully bypassed safety regulations leading to fatal electrocution

18 April 2023

Workplace safety inspectors in the US examining how a 36-year-old worker died at an Alabama paper mill found his employer wilfully violated safety standards, including disregarding hazardous energy control procedures that protect employees performing maintenance on machinery.

An investigation by the US Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) into the 28 September 2022 incident found a three-person team of employees of South Coast Paper LLC, based in the town of Maplesville, was working on a line of a sheeter machine – a system of six machines connected by metal conveyors that transforms paper rolls into copier paper – when they noticed one of the conveyor belts had stopped. During actions to replace the belt's motor – without de-energizing the machines in use – a hot wire made contact with the ground and energized the machine. The 36-year-old worker suffered electrocution when he grabbed a metal rail connected to the conveyor system.

"There is no reason to perform maintenance on machinery without first taking all steps to de-energize that piece of equipment. Doing otherwise places workers at serious risk for injury and death," said OSHA Area Office Director Jose Gonzalez in Mobile, Alabama. "South Coast Paper's failure to follow established safety procedures cost this worker their life and has left family, friends and co-workers to mourn."

OSHA cited the company with one wilful violation for allowing employees to perform maintenance on machinery without ensuring the development and documentation of hazardous energy control procedures and that they were followed.

The agency also cited South Coast Paper with a repeat violation for allowing workers to perform maintenance on machines without first being trained to make sure they possessed the knowledge and skills for safely applying, using and removing hazardous energy controls. OSHA cited the company for a similar violation in June 2022 at its Burlington, New Jersey, facility.

In addition, the agency cited South Coast Paper for lack of machine guarding, and not providing clear access in front of a 480-volt breaker panel nor training on electrical safe work practices.

OSHA has proposed $227,040 in penalties for the violations.

The company has 15 business days from receipt of the citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

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