By JONATHAN BERR, who has written for national media outlets for more than 15 years.
A $14.6 million verdict against ConAgra Foods Inc. last month raises a host of issues for risk managers, according to a labor union manager.
Jackie Nowell, the United Food and Commercial Workers union's director of occupational safety and health, said that when she first learned of the fatal 2009 accident at a ConAgra Foods Inc.'s Slim Jim plant in Garner, N.C., she figured it was caused by a faulty refrigeration system.
A later investigation found that the explosion was due to the improper purging of air lines, but that was little consolation for Nowell. In the end, workers all too often are the ones who pay the price, often the ultimate price. "There have been a dozen or so explosions of this sort in recent years," she said. "Workers have been killed."
Four people died in the 2009 incident, and the court in June will rule on punitive damages in connection with the Garner explosion. Many of the explosions, Nowell said, leave workers with horrible injuries and the Slim Jim accident highlights the poor job many food companies do in managing contractors, she said. "Our issue is that (these systems) probably leak every day."
Jacobs Engineering, the company blamed for the blast at the now-shuttered plant, also may get hit with punitive damages, said David Stradley, the attorney representing the workers. ConAgra declined to comment on the case and Jacobs Engineering didn't respond to inquiries.
In a 2009 Associated Press dispatch, ConAgra was quoted as saying that since the accident it has "worked closely and fully cooperated" with authorities. ConAgra, however, declined to discuss the 26 citations and $134,773 in fines leveled by safety inspectors nearly three years ago.
Investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board determined that the accident occurred after contractors at the plant purged or removed air-in lines before gas flows through them without taking adequate safety precautions.
Purging lines is supposed to prevent explosive mixtures of gas and air from forming, and safety advocates have argued for years that it was too dangerous to purge gas lines indoors after the practice was blamed for several prior explosions.
Federal investigators were harsh in their criticism regarding what took place at the Slim Jim plant during the purging -- which was occurring while a new water heater was being installed. Workers relied on their sense of smell instead of gas detection equipment to know when the piping had been purged.
More than 200 people were in the building when the explosion occurred.
Chemical Safety Board recommendations to require gas detectors be used and that gasses be vented outdoors when lines are being purged have been adopted by several states and included in plumbing and mechanical codes.
"These accidents are preventable for no cost at all," said Daniel Horowitz, a CSB spokesman, adding that his organization is pushing for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt a similar rule because it is considered the "gold standard" for worker safety rules.
May 1, 2012
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