Some 1,000 contractors at the Methanex site in Geismar were stuck behind a gate padlocked during a lightning alert Tuesday and could not leave until Ascension Parish sheriff’s deputies arrived and the gate was reopened by plant security.
Three contractors, who spoke to The Advocate on the condition of anonymity, said the locked gate is their only exit in case of emergencies and so locking it was a violation of federal worker safety laws.
“I have been doing this for years. I have never seen this happen before,” one Turner Industries contractor said. The contractor and two others who spoke to The Advocate said they were afraid to give their names because of possible job repercussions.
Severe storms Tuesday that caused flash flooding in Baton Rouge and dropped nearly a half-inch of rain in Gonzales by midday, brought frequent lightning strikes, as well.
Methanex spokeswoman Meg Mahoney said the plant issued a lightning alert about 11:15 a.m. and, under standard procedures, workers were directed to a safe haven she said has been approved for use in lightning storms.
Mahoney also confirmed the metal, chain-link fence that controls the workers’ access to exit turnstiles and to the vehicle parking lot was locked as a precaution and so left “some personnel not being able to leave immediately.”
“We are currently reviewing this practice” with their engineering and procurement contractor, Jacobs Engineering, she said.
Mahoney said the safe haven practice is designed to prevent workers from leaving and walking around the plant site while a lightning alert remains in place, though she said this was the first time the gate was locked.
Three contractors with Turner Industries said workers were packed into a hot building with canvaslike walls and metal support struts that serves as the site’s lunch room. One of the contractors provided a photograph of workers jammed into the building Tuesday, a situation the contractors said lasted for about two hours.
Two of the contractors said the workers tried to get out of the building once the worst of the storm cleared and company officials had called a “rainout.” That means workers were off the clock.
The Methanex site did have another exit that remained open Tuesday, the contractors said, but it is used only for vehicles and deliveries and is not set up so workers can properly check out.
A security guard at the worker exit would not unlock the gate, saying he was not yet authorized to do so because the lightning alert remained in place, these contractors said.
Another Turner contractor said several dozen upset workers were at the fence line at one point and one worker told the security guard that the locked gate was illegal.
“He said, ‘Yeah, that’s how we roll,’ ” the contractor said the guard responded.
The three contractors claimed workers called the parish Sheriff’s Office and, five to 10 minutes after deputies arrived and spoke with the guard and at least one other official, the gate was unlocked about 1:30 p.m.
These workers said they had the impression that sheriff’s deputies ordered the gate opened.
“We walked out the gate, shaking the cops’ hands, telling them, ‘Thank you,’ ” the second Turner contractor said.
Methanex’s Mahoney asserted a similar scenario.
“The Sheriff’s Office requested that we open the gate while still under a lightning alert, and we complied with their request,” Mahoney said.
But Sheriff Jeff Wiley said it was Methanex’s management who decided to unlock the gate.
“Deputies were only there for a brief time before the problem was resolved and spent most of their time assisting with traffic as (the workers) left the work site,” Wiley said in an email.
U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules require that workers have exit routes that are unobstructed, and, with the exception of penal or mental facilities, these exits must also be unlocked. An OSHA spokesman in Dallas said a worker did call the agency Tuesday but did not wish to file a formal complaint.
“OSHA is not investigating because we have no jurisdiction, and the reason we have no jurisdiction is because there was no complaint filed, there were no injuries and the hazard was abated before we were even called,” said Juan Rodriguez, OSHA spokesman.
But he said workers are encouraged to call OSHA to file complaints about workplace safety violations. He added their identities can be kept anonymous.
Methanex Corp. started production at the first of two methanol plants in January on its site near the intersection of River Road and La. 73, but the second phase of the $1.4 billion complex remains under construction.
Spokespeople for Turner Industries did not return messages for comment Tuesday.
Someone answering the telephone at Jacobs’ Baton Rouge office declined comment Tuesday and hung up before her name could be determined.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.
Editor’s Note: A contract employee granted anonymity by The Advocate falsely told the newspaper his/her employer was Cajun Industrial; however, the worker later admitted being employed at Turner Industries. No Cajun Industries’ employees were working at Methanex on Tuesday.