Two injured workers from Geismar plant fire improved to good condition on Friday; OSHA launches investigation _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- A fire at Renewable Energy Group plant in Geismar injured at least two people Thursday, April 2, 2015.

Federal workplace regulators said Tuesday a second company was cited and fined in a Sept. 3 hydrogen gas explosion and fire at the Renewable Energy Group biodiesel plant in Ascension Parish that injured four.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Excel Contractors Inc. $7,000 and found the contractor committed two serious violations of health and safety rules, according to a citation signed Thursday.

Over the weekend, it came to light that OSHA had fined Renewable Energy Group, an Iowa-based biofuels producer and owner of the Geismar complex, $70,000 and found the company committed three willful violations in the fire. A willful violation is OSHA’s most severe category of violation. OSHA Area Director Dorinda Folse signed Renewable Energy Group’s and Excel’s citations Thursday.

OSHA made the fine and citation against Excel public on Tuesday.

“We are shocked to learn OSHA has issued a citation to Excel over this incident,” said Joseph Wiley, executive vice president and general counsel of Excel.

He said OSHA’s investigator told Excel’s vice president of safety Feb. 10 that OSHA had found no evidence to support a citation against the company. Wiley added OSHA’s website showed the case was “closed” Feb. 18, and Wiley provided an email of a screen shot of the website that day showing as much.

Wiley said Excel thoroughly investigated the Renewable Energy Group fire and is fully satisfied Excel’s policies meet or exceed industry and OSHA standards and that no Excel employees contributed to the incident.

“Excel vigorously denies OSHA’s alleged violations and will contest the citation,” Wiley said. “Excel’s first priority has always been the safety and well-being of its employees.”

Before the explosion Sept. 3, workers with Renewable Energy Group and Excel were repairing a high-pressure hydrogen line when the gas, which should have been closed off from flowing into the line but was not, escaped into the air and exploded, severely burning at least one worker. Hydrogen is invisible and odorless but is highly flammable.

Under OSHA rules, a “serious” violation is a notch below a willful one.

A serious violation means OSHA found a “substantial probability” of death or serious physical injury to workers could result from company conditions or practices and the employer knew or should have know about them, according to OSHA’s Field Operations Manual.

A willful violation — which is what OSHA cited Renewable Energy Group with — means the company demonstrated “intentional disregard” or “plain indifference” to employee safety and health.

The violations against Excel and Renewable Energy Group focused on the same set of safety measures aimed at ensuring hydrogen gas was no longer flowing into the line under repair, so-called “lock-out/tag-out” procedures.

The steps are supposed to lock a valve or other equipment in the closed position and then the equipment is tagged, or clearly marked, so other workers know it’s closed.

An independent State Police investigation into the explosion found a key valve had been left open but had no indicator on it to show whether it had been left opened or closed.

In the citation, OSHA found Excel didn’t have written lock-out/tag-out procedures and didn’t have an effective verification step to ensure the valve was locked shut.

OSHA gave Excel and Renewable Energy Group until March 18 to correct the violations.

Renewable Energy Group officials said Saturday they are challenging their citation and fine.

The fire and explosion was the second at Renewable Energy Group’s plant in 2015. OSHA officials said Tuesday their investigation into an April 2 fire did not result in a citation.

“There were no violations of OSHA standards, so no citation was issued,” said Juan Rodriguez, an OSHA spokesman based in Dallas.