Wrongful Death Lawsuits from Workplace Dust Explosions

November 12, 2012

Wrongful Death

Ohio wrongful death from explosionsDust seems like a rather innocuous material in a household setting, but in a manufacturing facility or industrial plant, dust can take on combustible qualities and result in extraordinarily violent explosions that can kill.

Since 2003, at least 34 workers have died in combustible dust explosions in the United States and many others have been very seriously injured.  One survivor had had 70 surgeries and his medical bills were more than $17million.   The owners of the plants involved have come under fire and many wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits have been filed.

Families of four of six workers who were killed in a grain dust explosion in Atchison, KS in October 2011 filed a wrongful death lawsuit in August 2012 against Bartlett Grain Co. LP., claiming the company disregarded workplace safety rules.  The four men killed in the incident were all in their twenties.

The families of two other workers, who also lost their lives and were aged 34 and 43, did not participate in the lawsuit.  Federal safety officials accused Bartlett of willfully ignoring workplace rules and proposed that more than $400,000 in fines be levied against them.  The company has denied the allegations.

Eighteen months earlier in April 2010, a dust explosion at the ConAgra Foods plant in Chester, IL severely burned three workers.  A chemical reaction occurred at the plant just a week earlier, but again failure to follow OSHA guidelines and poor housekeeping spelled disaster.

Another tragic dust explosion took place at a sugar refinery plant near Savannah, GA.  It took the life of 14 employees and injured 40 more.  The explosion occurred in February 2008 at  Imperial Sugar and more than 40 lawsuits have resulted, some still pending.  A consultant warned officials at the plant about combustible dust hazards just two days before the deadly incident, according to the Savannah Morning News.  OSHA found 124 safety violations at Imperial and categorized many as willful actions.  In the context of workplace safety occurs when an employer knows that a hazardous situation exists and makes no reasonable attempt to eliminate it. occur—something done even though a supervisor of other company official knows he is disobeying or disregarding the law.  A criminal charge can result from conduct found to be willful.

In 2003, another 14 employees were killed in dust explosions at three plants—at West Pharmaceutical  Plant in Kinston, NC (6 killed and 36 injured); at Hayes Lemmerz automotive parts plant in Huntington, IN (1 killed and one severely injured); at CTA Acoustics fiberglass insulation manufacturing plant  in London, KY (7 killed, 37 injured). Investigation of all of these blasts revealed safety violations.

In some cases the federal, state or local inspectors had failed to do timely inspectionsor did not take their findings seriously enough.  An inspector at West Pharmaceuticals found 22 “serious” violations the year before the fatal explosion at the facility but told the company these were “routine” and fined them $10,000.

What is combustible dust?  The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) defines it as:  “Any finely divided, solid material that is 420 microns or smaller in diameter and presents a fire or explosion hazard when dispersed and ignited in air.”

Before combustion can occur, there must be a combustible dust dispersed in the air or another oxidant and the concentration must be at or above Minimum Explosive Concentration (MEC).  There must be an ignition source such as an electrostatic discharge, spark, glowing ember, hot surface, friction heat or a flame to ignite the dispersed dust mixture.

Combustible dust can exist in many materials in many industries.  Although Hazardous combustible dust is often associated with grain dust or coal dust in electrical power plants, combustible dust can also include metal dust (such as aluminum or magnesium), wood dust, plastic dust, organic dust from sugar, paper or soap and dust from certain textiles.

Some industries that handle combustible dust include agriculture, chemical, textile, forest and furniture products, wastewater treatment, metal processing, paper products, pharmaceuticals and recycling operations.

One of the significant factors in combustible dust explosions is that the primary or first explosion causes other settled dust in the area to become dispersed in the air.  This may result in one or more secondary explosions which are usually more destructive than the first explosion due to greater quantity of dispersed dust.

The facility where you work may be at risk if:

  • There is combustible dust present in with a surface accumulation of 1/32 of an inch or greater
  • There are dust collectors greater than 8 cubic feet in volume inside the buildings and  explosion relief venting is lacking
  • Equipment in areas where hazardous amounts of dust are accumulating do not  comply with regulations (29 CFR 1910.307(b)

Since the Imperial Sugar deaths and injuries, OSHA has become more diligent in its inspections and enforcing its regulations.  They have established a Severe Violator Program and more frequently visit those companies on this list.  Fritz Aluminum Services, a facility located in Eustis, FL that manufactures fencing and other metal equipment, closed its doors (at least temporarily) earlier this year after being cited for 37 OSHA safety violations including combustible dust.  The company may also face fines in excess of $140,000.

If you have been in a workplace accident or lost a loved one at work due to the negligence of another, experienced Ohio attorneys at Slater & Zurz  LLP will help you sort out the difficult issues that generally accompany a devastating event of this nature.   Please call us at 1-888-353-0379 if you have any questions about something that has happened in the workplace to you or a family member.

We can obtain the records you need to prove your case and help provide the compensation you are owed.

Many people believe that if they are injured at work, the only compensation available to them is workers’ compensation. While that is true in some cases, it is not true in all. You may be entitled to additional compensation through a personal injury lawsuit.

The state of Ohio provides additional compensation for victims of workplace accidents when an employer violates a specific safety regulation. At Slater & Zurz LLP, we regularly bring in engineers and other experts who can help determine if there was a mechanical, electrical, or structural violation at the worksite.

To learn more about wrongful death lawsuits in Ohio, please visit ohiowrongfuldeathlaw.com.

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About slaterzurz

Slater & Zurz LLP is an Ohio law firm of highly experienced and respected attorneys. Over the last 40 years, we have developed a reputation for getting positive results for clients. We've been trusted with handling over 20,000 personal injury cases and our clients have received more than $120,000,000.

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