Company fined $455,000 after deadly explosion

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Washington, DC, has issued fines totaling $455,000 against Western Resources for its failure to follow safety requirements at its Lawrence, KS, Energy Center, where three workers died in an electrical explosion in November 1997.

OSHA cited the company for six willful and seven serious safety violations, mostly of the agency's standard on electrical power generation. For the willful violations, OSHA fined the company $70,000 for each fatality, the maximum allowed.

The accident occurred on Nov. 24, 1997, when employees were working within the minimum safe distances of a high-voltage circuit breaker cubicle and removed safety guards from energized electrical conductors in the cubicle. OSHA determined it was likely that part of one of the safety guards touched the energized conductors, causing an electrical explosion with a 26-foot fireball.

One employee was killed instantly, and two others died of their injuries several days later. OSHA reports that neither the two supervisors directing the work nor the employee who was killed instantly had been wearing personal protective equipment. When the work situation changed, exposing the employee to energized electrical equipment, the managers should have held a second job briefing to address the changes and the appropriate safety procedures but did not, OSHA says.

The employer can challenge the OSHA fines.