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May 15, 2013
Clogged pump leads to worker's injury; Careless, but was it willful?

At the Teichert Aggregates plant in Woodland (near Sacramento), workers were putting the plant back in operation after a reconfiguration. At around 7:45 a.m. that day, the plant's superintendent noticed a problem with the plant's Warman slurry pump.

The pump was running warmer than normal, and appeared to have no input or output. Within 5 minutes of noticing that the pump was clogged, the superintendent ordered the plant shut down. The shutdown process took about 15 minutes.

The superintendent sent a worker to dig out and unplug the pump at about 8:40 a.m. When the worker reached the intake pipe, he intended to use a water hose to clear the clog. But when he sprayed water into the intake pipe, steam and hot water blew back in his face, causing burns. Fortunately, the worker was not seriously injured.

Inspection and citation

A Cal/OSHA inspector learned of the accident during the plant's mandated annual inspection in April 2010. He cited the employer for a serious, willful violation of General Industry Safety Orders (GISO) Section 3329, Pipelines. This provision requires the internal pressure of closed pressurized systems or gravity-fed systems to be relieved before they are opened to prevent the "sudden release of pressure or spraying of liquid." He proposed a $58,000 penalty.

The employer contested the citation, bringing in a witness from the pump's manufacturer to testify that the system in which the Warman pump was installed was an "open," unpressurized system designed to operate at less than 50 psi. The witness admitted that if both the pump's discharge and its intake were plugged, pressure could develop in the system—but argued that this would pose a danger only to the pump, not to personnel.

The Cal/OSH Appeals Board dismissed the witness's testimony that dangerous pressures could not develop in the system because dangerous pressure clearly had developed in the system, injuring the employee. The board upheld the citation and classified it as serious.

Practice tip

Although not all technical bulletins issued by manufacturers, government agencies, or industry groups are critical to safety, it pays to keep an eye out for those that apply to safety.

But was it willful?

For a violation to be classified as willful, Cal/OSHA must demonstrate that the employer knowingly violated a safety rule or that the employer knew of a dangerous condition but took no reasonable steps to eliminate it.

Cal/OSHA presented no evidence that the employer was aware of Section 3329's requirements, so the appeals board did not consider that condition met.

As to the employer's knowledge of the dangerous condition, the superintendent shut down the pump as soon as he realized it had a problem. Because the pump was hot to the touch, he also let it cool down for approximately 45 minutes before sending a worker to dig it out and begin repairs. He did not realize any other hazard might exist. He testified at the hearing that after the worker was injured, he searched online and reviewed several technical bulletins regarding the pump.

The appeals board found that the supervisor acted in a way that addressed the hazards he was aware of, but that he was not aware of the pressure hazard. The willful classification was vacated, and the penalty was recalculated to $11,700.

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