Ingredients for disaster: flammable materials, confined space, no emergency responders on site.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has completed its investigation into the Oct. 2, 2007, explosion at Xcel Energy’s Cabin Creek plant in Georgetown, CO, that killed five workers and injured three others.
The CSB identified 3 major causes of the incident:
- a lack of planning and training for hazardous work by Xcel and its contractor, RPI Coating
- Xcel’s selection of RPI despite its having the lowest possible safety rating (zero) among competing contractors, and
- allowing volatile flammable liquids to be introduced into a permit-required confined space without necessary special precautions.
Painting contractors from RPI were recoating a 1,530-foot portion of a water tunnel when a flash fire suddenly erupted. Vapor from a flammable solvent ignited, most likely from a spark near the spraying machine. The solvent was used to clean spray-painting equipment.
The fire quickly spread as more solvent ignited. There were 10 workers in the tunnel at the time. Five were unable to get to the only available exit. Five workers made it out safely, although three were injured.
The closest confined space rescue unit was about 75 minutes away. The trapped workers died about an hour before the response unit arrived.
The CSB claims Xcel and RPI impeded the investigation. The agency had to seek assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver. Xcel went to federal court seeking to block release of the CSB report. The court sided with CSB in favor of the report’s release.
OSHA’s confined space regulation doesn’t prohibit entry or work in confined spaces where the concentration of flammable vapor exceeds 10% of the chemical’s lower explosive limit (LEL).
The CSB recommends OSHA establish a fixed maximum percentage of the LEL for entry so that work in potentially flammable atmospheres would be prohibited.