Federal authorities have cited Tampa Electric Co. and Gaffin Industrial Services Inc. after a workplace accident involving a release of molten slag fatally injured five workers and left another with severe burn injuries.
The deadly workplace accident occurred on Thursday, June 29, at Tampa Electric’s Big Bend River Station in Apollo Beach when the workers were performing routine maintenance on a slag tank, which holds molten coal waste after it’s burned. Slag is a lava-like substance that forms when burning coal is mixed with water.
“We had employees that were working to unplug a blockage in that tank,” Tampa Electric President and CEO Gordon Gillette said in a statement about the workplace accident, according to WFTS Action News Tampa Bay. “And hot molten slag actually came out of that blockage and created the incident.”
Workers Michael McCort and Christopher Irvin died at the scene of the accident. Frank Lee Jones and Antonio Navarrete died in the hospital of their injuries the following week. A fifth worker, Armando Perez, initially survived the accident but died on July 20. The men were employees of Tampa Electric, Gaffin Industrial Services, and Brace Integrated Services.
According to the U.S. Occupational and Safety Administration (OSHA), an investigation of the workplace accident found safety failures on the part of Tampa Electric and Gaffin Industrial contributed to the deadly release.
OSHA cited Tampa Electric for one willful violation, its most serious type of violation – for failing to follow energy-control procedures while performing maintenance on equipment. OSHA cites companies for willful violations only when they intentionally disregard federal safety rules or act with indifference for the safety of their employees. Tampa Electric’s fine for the one willful violation is $126,749.
Gaffin Industrial Services was cited for failing to develop procedures to control hazardous energy.
Both companies were also cited for failure to provide appropriate personal protective equipment to safeguard employees from burn injuries.
The total proposed penalties came to $160,972.
“This tragedy demonstrates what can happen when hazards are not properly controlled,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer in Atlanta. “Employers must develop and implement necessary procedures to prevent incidents such as this from occurring.”
“Tampa Electric’s number one priority is safety,” said Tampa Electric spokesperson Cherie Jacobs. “Safety of our employees, of our contractors, of our customers. We want to make sure we get every detail right in this investigation to make sure we know exactly what happened, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
IBEW Local 108, a local workers’ union, said, “This incident could have been avoided. Period. It’s time to listen to the employees. It’s time to stop using contractors to do ‘routine maintenance’ when the safety of this maintenance has been questioned by employees. It’s time to stop putting profit before safety. It’s time to truly put safety first.”