If convicted, each corporation could be fined as much as $500,000 for each of the five counts against it.

Companies on Trial in 2007 Confined Space Deaths

In 2008, OSHA issued more than $1 million in fines against the two companies now on trial in a Colorado federal court.

A criminal trial over workplace fatalities is under way in Colorado, with Xcel Energy and Public Service Co. of Colorado defending themselves against five charges of violating worker safety rules. The charges involve the October 2007 deaths of five contract workers who were asphyxiated after a fire broke out inside a water pipe they were re-sealing at Xcel's Cabin Creek hydroelectric plant near Georgetown, Colo., and the fire prevented the five from reaching the only available exit.

If convicted, each corporation could be fined as much as $500,000 for each of the five counts against it, The Denver Post's John Ingold reported in his coverage of the trial, which began June 1.

The contractor, RPI Coating Inc. of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., and two of its executives also face criminal charges but will face trial later. OSHA issued $845,100 in penalties against RPI Coating and another $189,900 against Public Service, doing business as Xcel Energy, on March 24, 2008, in connection with the incident.

Xcel knew about but ignored violations of permit-required confined space regulations governing the work inside the pipe, called a penstock, federal prosecutor Jaime Pena said during the opening day of the trial. Xcel's attorney, Cliff Stricklin, told the jury that the incident was an unforeseeable accident and said RPI Coating is to blame.

OSHA's action in the case suggests it, too, found RPI most at fault: OSHA issued 13 willful citations and 25 serious citations against RPI; it issued two willful citations and 19 serious citations against Xcel.

In its final report, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board criticized both companies, concluding the incident was caused by: (1) a lack of planning and training for hazardous work by Xcel and its contractor, RPI; (2) Xcel's selection of RPI despite its having the lowest possible safety rating (zero) among competing contractors; and (3) allowing volatile flammable liquids to be introduced into a permit-required confined space without necessary special precautions.

CSB investigators and board members also said Xcel and RPI tried to impede the board's investigation, with board member William Wark saying, "The lack of cooperation and efforts by Xcel to impede our investigation are unprecedented."

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