On May 19, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) announced a combined $1,753,375 in fines for the Valero Refinery of Benicia and 3 of its contractors following an investigation into the confined space death of a 35-year-old worker.
On November 12, 2021, a worker lost consciousness after descending into a regenerator overflow well at the Benicia refinery to evaluate the condition of the well interior and perform cleaning operations in advance of a welding crew, according to Cal/OSHA.
The worker was found inside the regenerator, suspended by his fall protection equipment. A refinery emergency rescue team retrieved the worker.
The Benicia Fire Department and Valero Refinery Fire Department, after performing on-site medical treatment, could not resuscitate him.
Cal/OSHA investigators determined that a welding torch left in the well was leaking argon, an odorless gas that displaced oxygen inside the confined space.
Cal/OSHA cited Valero Refinery with 4 willful, serious and 5 serious violations and proposed penalties of $528,750. A willful violation is cited if the agency finds evidence that the employer either knowingly violated the law or took no reasonable steps to address a known hazard. The agency cites an employer with a serious violation when there is a realistic possibility that death or serious physical harm could result from the hazard created by the violation.
Total Safety, a specialty trade contractor, was cited with 6 willful, serious; 7 serious; and 4 general violations. Cal/OSHA proposed $988,000 in penalties.
Cal/OSHA cites an employer for a general violation when an accident or occupational illness resulting from a violation of a standard probably would not cause death or serious physical harm but has a direct or immediate relationship to the safety or health of employees.
JT. Thorpe & Son, Inc., a masonry contractor, was cited with 1 willful, serious; 1 serious; and 4 regulatory violations, with $135,500 in proposed penalties. The agency cites an employer for a regulatory violation when the employer fails to comply with recordkeeping, posting, or permit requirements.
T.R.S.C., Inc., a foundation, structure, and building exterior contractor, was cited with 8 serious, 3 general, and 5 regulatory violations, with proposed penalties of $101,125.
Cal/OSHA concluded that the employers failed to evaluate the workplace to determine if any spaces are permit-required confined spaces, ensure that employees use equipment and safety precautions during the rescue of an employee, and monitor unauthorized entrants into workspaces.
“Working in confined spaces is extremely dangerous, as is working with argon,” Cal/OSHA Chief Jeff Killip said in an agency statement. “The employers involved had a responsibility to keep their workers safe. The first step to preventing a completely avoidable fatality is to identify hazards before a worker enters a confined space.”
The agency pointed out that confined space hazards exist across industries in many workplaces and include drain tunnels, pipelines, sewers, silos, storage bins, tanks, and vaults. Under the California and federal confined space standards, employers must identify and mark confined spaces, establish and maintain on-site emergency response plans, and provide training for workers and supervisors.
Cal/OSHA’s confined space guide for general industry, available on the agency’s website, may help employers provide safe workplaces and ensure workers know these hazards.