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One of the nation’s largest freight truck carriers has been fined $119,000 in connection with an explosion that occurred when workers were attempting to replace a propane tank on a forklift inside an enclosed tractor trailer.
The incident occurred August 7 in the St. Louis trucking facility belonging to Saia. Two workers were changing out a propane tank on a liquefied petroleum gas-powered forklift inside a freight trailer when a loose coupling connection permitted liquid propane to leak, vaporize and ignite, causing a flash fire.
Four Workers Suffer Burns
Both workers — a 54-year-old lead forklift operator and a 25-year-old worker who had only recently been hired — suffered critical burns, according to a news release the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A third worker suffered burns to his legs as he tried to put out his co-workers’ burning clothes. And a fourth worker, who was operating a forklift nearby, also received burns.
SAIA spokeswoman Jeannie Jump told KMOV-TV in St. Louis said all of the injured workers were expected to survive their injuries. Two of the employee who suffered minor injuries declined medical treatment at the scene.
Post-Accident Investigation Uncovers Violations
When OSHA investigators arrived on the scene, they discovered that several of Saia’s powered industrial trucks had defective or bypassed safety switches. The vehicles were still being used even though they were in need of repairs,a willful violation of federal workplace safety regulations.
Saia was cited for 11 workplace safety violations, many of which involved propane hazards. The OSHA inspectors found that the company did not evacuate the work area after the release of the flammable gas, required workers to change out propane containers in areas that were not adequately ventilated, and failed to train workers on the safe handling of highly flammable gasses.
Saia also was cited for having forklifts with gas containers mounted improperly and not requiring workers to wear hand and eye protection when changing cylinders.
During their post-accident investigation, inspectors also found that the facility had dangerous chemicals in the maintenance shop that were not properly labeled and that the company failed to properly train powered industrial truck operators.
Several electrical safety hazards also were discovered.
Whenever there an employee is injured or killed in a workplace accident, OSHA will conduct an investigation into the cause of the incident. While they are on site, they often will cite companies for any other health and safety issues they discover, even if they aren’t directly related to the original incident.
Propane Handling Dangers
Many of the fuels used to power forklifts — including propane, gasoline, diesel fuel and hydrogen — are highly explosive and need to be treated with respect and caution at all times. As proven by this unfortunate accident, even the smallest spark can ignite an enormous fireball if forklift fuel is not handled properly.
Changing a propane tank or refueling a forklift in an enclosed space such as a tractor trailer or a train car is never a good idea. You can avoid these types of situations by always being aware of your fuel level before driving your forklift into an tight area that doesn’t have proper ventilation.
If you do find yourself in a situation where you must replace a fuel tank or refuel your vehicle in a contained area, make sure there is plenty of light so you can see what you are doing, ventilate the area as well as possible, and keep all unnecessary personnel out of the potential blast area.