Explosion at Tonawanda Coke Corp. Brings $161,100 in Fines

Workers allegedly were exposed to preventable fire, chemical, and mechanical hazards.

Tonawanda Coke Corp. and Kirchner LLC are facing $161,100 in fines from OSHA following an explosion that occurred Jan. 31, 2014, at the 3875 River Road plant in Tonawanda. The explosion caused walls to collapse and damaged electrical equipment while injuring three employees.

According to a press release from OSHA, the explosion was caused by an overpressured coke oven manifold, which released coke oven gas in an enclosed area where it ignited. The flare stack, used to burn off excess coke oven gas, failed. OSHA determined that this exposed Tonawanda Coke employees to asphyxiation from the release of gas, as well as explosion and fire hazards.

"Had this company taken proper precautions and ensure that safety systems were working, this explosion would not have occurred. Equally disturbing, however, are the additional, preventable hazards the employer allowed at the plant," said Michael Scime, OSHA's area director in Buffalo. "These conditions exposed workers to potential amputations, falls, crushing injuries, injury by unexpectedly activated machinery and an inability to exit the workplace swiftly if fire, explosions or other emergencies arose."

The additional hazards include missing guardrails; obstructed emergency exit routes and a defective exit door; failure to lockout machines' power sources before performing maintenance; use of uninspected cranes, lifting ropes, and unguarded saws; improperly stored oxygen cylinders; and failure to determine employees' levels of exposure to the hazardous substance hexavalent chromium and not training them about its hazards.

These conditions led to the issuance of 15 serious violations with $90,100 in fines. The companies were also issued two repeat violations, which come with $70,000 in fines, for recurring hazards, failing to train employees in lockout procedures, and not certifying inspections of lockout procedures.

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