OSHA cites contractor, JJ's Restaurant for explosion - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

OSHA cites contractor, JJ's Restaurant for explosion

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CHICAGO (KCTV) -

The federal government is citing contractor Heartland Midwest and JJ's Restaurant for the deadly explosion that occurred almost six months ago.

Heartland Midwest faces a $161,000 fine while JJ's faces a $2,000 fine.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced the citations and fines Thursday afternoon.

Heartland Midwest's attorney said Thursday that the company will contest the citation and fine.

JJ's server Megan Cramer was killed after a drill bit punctured a natural gas line. As restaurant workers were in the process of closing up and evacuating, gases built up inside the restaurant and were ignited by a pilot light on a stove. Fifteen people were injured, including several critically, during the Feb. 19 explosion.

Time-Warner Cable contracted with Olathe-based Heartland Midwest to lay fiber optics to a nearby hotel under construction.

Three Heartland Midwest workers were seriously injured. Heartland Midwest was cited for "a willful violation of the general duty clause" for failing to provide a safe work environment.

The drill rig operator did not speak or read English, OSHA says.The Spanish-speaking worker had not been provided available training materials or operating manuals in Spanish. The worker did not have proper training on operations and had not been provided sufficient training, according to the news release.

But Brad Russell, Heartland Midwest's attorney, said the drill rig operator could speak English, but was only provided an interpretator to make him feel more comfortable.

Workers also did not wear boots that would prevent them from electrical shock, OSHA said.

"Employees were exposed to explosion, toxic chemical exposure and electrocution hazards while boring underground and crossing the paths of existing utilities," according to the OSHA news release. "OSHA determined that this willful citation was a factor in the natural gas release, explosion and fire that resulted in the hospitalization of the three Heartland Midwest workers."

In a statement, Heartland vigorously disputed the OSHA findings, saying they are "ill-founded and unsubstantiated allegations that are neither supported by facts or even law under these circumstances."

"Heartland Midwest understands that this is simply the initial starting point of a legal process which will force OSHA and its representatives to present evidence to a judge to support claims it feels are weak and ill-defined," the company said, adding that the OSHA claims are not conclusive.

Heartland Midwest vowed to fight the findings and fine in every venue possible, including in court.

"Yet in OSHA's bureaucratic domain, it feels free to toss out labels like "willful" and "serious" without regard to the real-world implications of those charges. Under these circumstances, Heartland Midwest is more than anxious for an opportunity to put OSHA's bureaucratic charges to the test," the statement said. "Perhaps OSHA feels that a small company like Heartland Midwest lacks the resources or capability to challenge improper and unsubstantiated allegations. In this judgment, like many of the judgments in its citations, OSHA has made a mistake. Allegations are easy. Proving allegations is a much more challenging task. Heartland Midwest will use every available resource to force OSHA to produce evidence and proof to support these unsupported claims."

OSHA officials said deadly mistakes were made.

"This explosion was a tragic event that stemmed from errors on behalf of Heartland Midwest. Companies, such as Heartland Midwest, have a responsibility to train employees about the hazards that exist on work sites. It is heartbreaking that a person was killed, and numerous employees were severely injured as a result of these violations," said Marcia Drumm, acting regional administrator for OSHA in Kansas City. "OSHA is committed to ensuring safe work practices to prevent endangering the safety and health of workers on the job."

OSHA placed Heartland Midwest in its "severe violator enforcement program," for "committing willful, repeat or failure-to-abate violations."

The company failed to ensure its workers were trained or had enough experience to operate the drill machine and handle the pipeline. In addition, a worker smoked in the area "of an uncontrolled natural gas release."

JJ's was cited for not having an emergency plan to get workers safely evacuated. Employees weren't properly trained for a safe and orderly evacuation, OSHA said.

The company also did not have procedures "to account for and protect workers following an evacuation due to an emergency, such as an explosion or fire."

Heartland and JJ's can contest the citations and fines.

Missouri Gas Energy operated that gas line. OSHA looked into MGE's handling of the case, but instead handed the MGE part of the case over to the Missouri Public Safety Commission. That report is due in September, according to OSHA's news release.

Russell said he believes MGE bears the brunt of the responsibility. He says MGE workers allowed the gas to continue leaking for about an hour, and didn't get the line shut down immediately. He also says the company hired by MGE failed to mark the gas line that the drill punctured.

"Heartland's employees are trained on the job with supervisors who have years of experience but to OSHA that isn't sufficient," Russell said. "They want paperwork to show that they reviewed videos and read manuals."

Grant L. Davis, who is representing some JJ's employees in the lawsuit, contends that the OSHA violation of the restaurant misses the point.

"They had a diagram there telling people how to evacuate. OSHA is really talking about JJ's workers not knowing how to operate fire extinguishers, but that has nothing to do with the explosion," Davis said.

JJ's Restaurant's attorneys did not immediately respond.

Click here to view the Heartland Midwest citations.

Click here to view the JJ's Bar and Grill citations.

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