Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Substandard Training Hampers Firefighters

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Substandard Training Hampers Firefighters

Article excerpt


At the Union Oil Co. of California's Chicago Refinery, a phone call from a neighboring unit first alerted operators at the Fluid Catalytic Cracking Complex of a problem. As the four operators left their field shelter, they saw a vapor cloud about 15-20 feet long coming from a crack in 12D701, a large pressre vessel that stripped hydrogen sulfide from liquefied propane and butane gases.

The vapor leak was shooting through the ladder affixed to the side of the vessel, preventing access to 12D701's pressure relief valve. Wayne Kielma, the outside operator, tried to operate valves on the unit to redirect the flow of the liquids to other vessels, but the ladder he has using was too short to provide him enough leverage to move the valves.

Meanwhile, Kielma's assistants began directing steam at the escaping vapor in an effort to control it. By this time, a plan firetruck, responding to the alarm, and shift fire brigadesmen began arriving at the scene. Kielma conferred with Bill Drury, cracking shift supervisor; the men agreed that the unit would have to be shut down -- a procedure that would take 30-45 minutes.

Moments later, 12D701 erupted in a shattering explosion that blew the top of the vessel 3,200 feet away and sent a wall of fire cascading out. The explosion and fire resulted in 17 fatalities and 14 serious injuries.

OSHA investigated the disastrous accident and issued two citations. The first citation alleged that Union Oil had willfully violated the general duty clause of the OSH Act, as well as various standards involving personal protective equipment and training of firefighting personnel. A $30,000 penalty was proposed. The second citation alleged that the company lacked effective emergency evacuation procedures and, consequently, its employees lacked training in such procedures. A $1,000 penalty was proposed.

Union Oil contested the citations, and, after twoyears of prehearing procedural arguments between the parties, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge R.M. Child.

OSHA had, in part, cited Union Oil for six related violations of 29 CFR 1910.156, which deals with the training and education of fire brigades. Section 1910.156(c)(1) of that standard requires that employers provide training for all fire brigade members "commensurate with those duties and functions that fire brigade members are expected to perform. Such training and education shall be provided to fire brigade members before they perform fire brigade emergency activities. Fire brigade leaders and training instructors shall be provided with training and education which is more comprehensive than the provided to the general membership of the fire brigade."

According to company records, Union Oil had two fire brigades. The Day Fire Crew, consisting of salaried and hourly workers, was responsible for fighting fires between 7:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. They were supposed to attend monthly fire training sessions. The Shift Fire Crew, also consisting of supervisors and hourly employees, was responsible for fighting fires on nights, weekends, and holidays. Their training was bimonthly. Because the explosion occurred at approximately 5:30 p.m., the Shift Fire Crew was on duty.

Union Oil's attorneys argued that 1910.156(c)(1) did not apply to Shift Fire Crew members because they were instructed to respond only to incipient stage fires, and their training was tailored to that role.

OSHA countered that the Shift Fire Crew was not limited to fighting incipient fires, but rather was responsible for fighting fires "when the Day Fire Crew is not present." The agency noted that Union Oil had furnished both crews with turnout gear. OSHA also pointed out that the company had trained the Shift Fire Crew repeatedly in the use of 3-inch and 2-1/2-inch hose and 2-1/2-inch nozzles -- all of which are used in full-scale firefighting. …

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