Blue Rhino workers at fault in blast? OSHA probe shows otherwise

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Blue Rhino for violating 26 safety violations, some serious, in the wake of the fiery explosion on July 29 that severely burned five workers and left one in a coma for a month. It levied a fine of $73,000.

Now comes news that Blue Rhino is defending itself by blaming its employees for the blast. The company told OSHA that "unpreventable" and "unforeseeable" employee misconduct caused the blast.

In a written response, lawyers for Ferrellgas, Blue Rhino's parent company, claimed that the unsafe conditions at the Tavares plant were caused by "isolated and unauthorized actions by certain employees and/or supervisors."

Oh, yeah. Blame anybody but the company. This would be a hilarious if it weren't that people nearly lost their lives, businesses were damaged and residents nearby still have trouble sleeping in their own homes at night.

The OSHA report makes it clear that the reason employees took dangerous chances was that the company didn't bother to train them. Apparently, that makes it easier to blame the dolts when they ignite an explosion that nearly removes south Tavares from the map. Blue Rhino's workers ought to be furious.

Over and over, OSHA reported that employees weren't trained on safety — and not even properly trained to do their jobs.

For example, the company routinely let untrained workers bleed tanks out in the open, which they were doing the night when yet another untrained employee drove a forklift into a cloud of the gas. The forklift, recently "repaired" by a company whose qualifications Blue Rhino didn't check, ignited the flash explosion and fire that burned all night.

Employees reported they were routinely opening cylinders and letting propane go willy nilly into the atmosphere because a machine designed to capture gas from the used 20-pound cylinders hadn't worked for months. OSHA said it had a faulty solenoid that hadn't been repaired for a year and a half. Yeah, those pesky employees. They're forever busting up the equipment.

According to OSHA, the company:

•Let employees bleed tanks on the conveyor line and send them with valves open and propane still in them to be sandblasted.

• Routinely ordered employees to keep working when gas alarms indicating unsafe levels sounded.

• Had no written procedures for what to do in an emergency.

That last was the best — nothing could ever go wrong when you're handling thousands of tanks full of a highly explosive gas, right? The list goes on, portraying a company with little regard for the safety of its workers or for those who live around it.

Blue Rhino didn't even have written procedures to which employees could have referred on their own if they wanted to be safe. But hey, that probably wouldn't have helped anyway, considering a number of them didn't speak or read English. Of the 17 employees and one manager working at the time, eight were natives of the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific Ocean, and some of them interviewed by investigators needed translators. So exactly how did the company go about "training" these folks who they claim caused the blast?

Ferrellgas shouldn't be fighting the OSHA fine. It should be apologizing to the community of Tavares and begging Blue Rhino employees for forgiveness, not blaming them. Its claims are shameful and just a blatant attempt to shuffle blame from where it ought to lay onto someone else.

The plant here is one of nine across the country that receives tanks used in backyard grilling, refurbishes them and ships them out for consumers to use again. One can only wonder how safe things are in this company's other eight operations.

The month after the explosion, Ferrellgas reported that its profit for fiscal year 2013 was up 15 percent to a record $738.8 million.

Great! Maybe now the company can afford to buy that new solenoid and even take a few minutes to mention to workers that driving a forklift into a cloud of propane in the back lot might not be the safest of procedures.

Lritchie@tribune.com. Lauren invites you to send her a friend request on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/laurenonlake.

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