Two years after crane collapse killed four workers in Texas, an update

When one of the nation’s largest mobile cranes–the Versa TC 36000—collapsed on July 18, 2008 at the LyondellBasell refinery in Pasadena, TX, four workers lost their lives:
Marion “Scooter” Hubert Odom III, 41; John D. Henry, 33; Daniel “DJ” Lee Johnson; Rocky Dale Strength, 30. I wrote about this terrible crane disaster at the time, and used the incident to comment on OSHA’s failure to issue a more protective rule for cranes and derricks. (A new rule has been in the making at OSHA since at least 2003, and it may be issued in a few months.*)

At the time of the incident, their employer Deep South Crane and Rigging, issued a statement saying:

“…our thoughts and prayers are with our employees and their loved ones. …At this point we have few details on what actually happened and we are trying to gather information. We will use this information to conduct an investigation to determine the root cause, correct it and ensure that this type of tragedy does not occur again.”

Today, I was wondering what happened in the nearly two years since the disaster. I visited Deep South Crane and Rigging’s website to look for a memorial to the workers, archived statements of remorse, or even of copy of their aforementioned investigation. Their Safety Philosophy suggests they strive to learn from their “years of experience” and are eager to share their knowledge “within our industry.” Given these lofty statements, I thought I might find a report of the deadly collapse which presumably could be used by other firms to prevent similar incidents. When I struck out looking on the site, I followed-up with an email inquiry to Deep South Crane and Rigging. (If I hear back from them, I’ll update it here.)

OSHA staff in Texas investigated the incident and concluded that the victims’ employer, Deep South Crane and Rigging, had violated numerous safety standards, with six violations classified as serious and one a repeat.** The citations and a proposed penalty of $71,500 was issued in January 2009.

Deep South Crane and Rigging contested some of the citations and a trial was held in October 2009 before an administrative law judge. One of the employer’s defenses was blaming the on-site superintendent and lead operator of the Versa 36000. (He was not operating the crane on the day of the disaster.) In the OSHRC decision and order, the defense strategy of blaming an employee for the violation is referred to as “unpreventable employee misconduct.” The judge didn’t buy it however, saying:

“a supervisor’s participation in a violation is strong evidence that an employer’s safety program is lax.”

The judge also recounted what he’d learned at the trial:

“the jobsite was the first occasion for the Superintendent to meet and work with Mr. Odom (deceased). The Superintendent did not know how long Mr. Odom had been employed by the company, which cranes Mr. Odom had operated previously, or Mr. Odom’s qualifications to operate the Versa 36000. A group of senior managers, not including the Superintendent, made the decision to assign Mr. Odom to this project with the understanding that Mr. Odom would operate the Versa 36000.”

Moreover, the on-site Superintendent testified that he only spent 15 minutes explaining the controls to (deceased) Mr. Odom, and he did not consider himself a trainer of other crane operators. It’s in this part of the judge’s ruling that he reinforces the fact that the Versa 36000 is “one of the largest cranes in the world.”

It seems the judge was making this point: if you are using a highly specialized and rare piece of huge equipment, it would be wise to make sure that the individual assigned to use it is adequately trained. In fact, the judge noted that a different crane operator employed also by Deep South Crane said that when he was learning to operate the monster TC-36000 crane

“a trainer spent two weeks in the cab of the crane with him before he was allowed to operate it alone.”

When I read the judge’s ruling, I just had to wonder what in the world was going on at the LyondellBasell refinery site that was putting such pressure on the Deep South Crane executives to take such a risk. Those are factors that aren’t covered well by our health and safety standards, but certainly can be the difference between life and death for workers and the community at large.

When I read that the company had received a repeat violation for the deaths in 2008, I had no idea it involved the death of another unqualified crane operator. In February 2007, a Deep South Crane employee was killed at another refinery site (Coffeyville Resources) when he was crushed between the counterweight being lifted and other counterweights stacked behind him. OSHA staff investigated this fatality, issued four citations (including three on crane safety) and proposed a $9,000 penalty. Through a formal settlement agreement, three of the four citations were deleted and the monetary penalty reduced to $0.00. Remarkably, the solo remaining citation from the 2007 fatality was exactly the same as the one issued in the 2008 deaths, 1926.20(b)(4):

“The employer shall permit only those employees qualified by training or experience to operate equipment and machinery,”

allowing the OSHA Texas staff to issue the repeat violation.

Ultimately, when the administrative law judge issued his ruling in March 2010, he upheld four of the citations and assessed a penalty of $47,000. [Four workers dead and a $47,000 penalty to a company with another worker fatality the year and a $0.00 penalty. Isn't it time to INCREASE the penalty maximums under the OSH Act? PAWA would do that.] In April, the company requested review by the full OSHRC, meaning the litigation will drag on for at least another year.

Although I did not find any memorial or mention of the four workers’ deaths on the Deep South Crane and Rigging website, their safety philosophy appears consistent with their “employee misconduct” defense used in their challenge of the OSHA citations.

“Safety is the most important element in our business and for our company. …We believe that all accidents and injuries are preventable and that this is achieved by the efforts of each and every individual, working within a framework of safe procedures and policies. ….We hold each employee responsible for his or her own safety, and for the safety of those people working nearby.”

Might I suggest a modification: We hold each executive and senior manager responsible for creating an environment whereby workers have the power and authority to do their jobs safely, to not be placed in circumstances where they are expected to choose between production and safety, and where they are rewarded for identifying hazards and circumstances, and reporting near misses.

*Note: OSHA sent its final rule package to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Office of Info and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) on April 9, 2010.

**Note: The administrative law judge decision indicates there were 11 original violations, but OSHA’s “establishment search” webtool only shows eight violations. I don’t know which one is correct.

Comments

  1. #1 Lisa
    August 26, 2010

    I miss them everyday, not a day goes by that i don’t moan for my son and the men that died that day. I also pray for the men and women that was there that horrible day, I pray that some how they have peace, I can’t even imagine bearing what they saw that day. My son loved his job and loved the men he worked with. RIP, you will never be forgotten.

  2. #2 Vanessa
    August 27, 2010

    Unfortuneatly this is something that we as a family will NEVER forget. Every day is still difficult and will never be the same at family gatherings or the children’s birthdays and successes in life while growing up. These guys should all still be here today! THANK YOU for posting this article!!! They are now gone but never forgotten
    WITH LOVE ALWAYS AND FOREVER D.J.

  3. #3 Robert
    Washington, DC and northern VA
    July 22, 2012

    As a large lattice crane operator ,I am constantly under pressure to push production. This article gives me the courage to say “no” as I endure these hard times.How many times have I heard “just this one time” and “we do it like this all the time”. Loss of life should never be for the sake of “a lesson learned” or “how not to do it”. Over ten years since Big Blue, and the first public example of “do it or else….” and the industry is just now catching up. Finally the new OSHA CFR 1926.1400 gives me the POWER to say “NO!”