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June 14, 2021
OSHA faults Veterans Affairs, contractor in steam fatalities

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued nine notices of unsafe and unhealthful working conditions to the Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare system (VACT) for one willful, three repeat, and five serious “violations” after two workers were fatally injured by a hot steam release. OSHA does not cite and penalize other federal agencies, but if the Department of Veterans Affairs were a private sector employer, it would face penalties totaling $621,218, according to OSHA.

OSHA issues a Notice of Unsafe and Unhealthful Working Conditions to federal agencies—the equivalent of a private sector citation. Under Executive Order 12196, federal agencies must comply with the same safety and health standards as private sector employers covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. However, OSHA cannot propose monetary penalties against other federal agencies for failure to comply with federal safety and health standards.

Workers who had just finished making repairs to a steam pipe at the VACT’s West Haven campus in November 2020 suffered fatal injuries caused by hot steam after a metal fixture on a main steam line blew off.

OSHA inspectors determined that the VACT failed to protect employees from struck-by and burn hazards. They also identified deficiencies in the facility’s control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout) program. One of the fatally injured workers was an employee of the VACT, and the other was an employee of Mulvaney Mechanical Inc., a Danbury, Connecticut, private sector contractor. 

OSHA cited Mulvaney Mechanical for four serious violations and proposed penalties totaling $38,228 for failing to:

  • Develop, document, and use lockout/tagout procedures for the control of potentially hazardous energy.
  • Adequately train employees on the methods necessary to isolate and control energy.
  • Inform the VACT of Mulvaney Mechanical’s lockout/tagout procedures.
  • Ensure that each authorized employee affixed a personal lockout or tagout device to the group lockout device.

Mulvaney Mechanical has 15 business days from receipt of the citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the citations and penalties before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

OSHA inspectors found that the VACT failed to:

  • Properly shut down to avoid additional or increased hazards to employees.
  • Relieve or render safe all potentially hazardous residual energy, such as condensate water.
  • Maintain adequate procedures for isolating each steam main branch supplying campus buildings.
  • Conduct a periodic inspection of all lockout/tagout procedures to correct any deviations or inadequacies.
  • Provide adequate training to supervisory employees or retrain employees when there was a change in their job assignments or a change in machines, equipment, or processes that presented a new hazard.
  • Notify affected employees of the application and removal of lockout or tagout devices or inform Mulvaney Mechanical of the VACT’s lockout/tagout procedures.
  • Ensure each authorized employee affixed a personal lockout or tagout device to the group lockout device before working on the machine or equipment.

“These fatalities could have been prevented if the employer had complied with safety standards that are designed to prevent the uncontrolled release of steam,” OSHA’s Bridgeport, Connecticut, area director, Steven Biasi, said in a statement. “Tragically, these well-known protective measures were not in place and two workers needlessly lost their lives.”

The VACT has 15 business days from receipt of the notices to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or appeal the notices by submitting a summary to OSHA’s regional administrator of the VACT’s position on the unresolved issues.

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