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OSHA cites drilling company in fatal explosion at JJ’s restaurant

Updated: 2014-02-06T17:12:26Z

By DAVE HELLING

The Kansas City Star

The crew of the boring rig that struck a gas line near the Country Club Plaza in February lacked needed training, wasn’t wearing required equipment and improperly relied on “ill-defined hand signals” to communicate, a federal agency said Thursday.

Citing those and other alleged deficiencies, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed $161,000 in penalties for Heartland Midwest LLC, the Olathe-based drilling company involved in the fatal explosion at JJ’s restaurant.

“This explosion was a tragic event that stemmed from errors on behalf of Heartland Midwest,” said a statement from Marcia Drumm, OSHA’s acting regional administrator.

The company’s lawyer strongly rejected OSHA’s findings and promised to fight them.

“OSHA has decided to issue ill-founded and unsubstantiated allegations that are neither supported by facts or even law,” said a statement from attorney Brad Russell.

OSHA cited Heartland Midwest for two “willful” violations of safety laws, the agency’s most serious finding.

It also alleged three other violations, including a claim that a drilling crew member was seen smoking after the boring machine struck an underground gas line.

Crew members, OSHA said, were not wearing special footwear to protect against electrocution if they struck an underground utility line, a potential violation of federal regulations.

OSHA also claimed the boring rig operator couldn’t read or speak English, and couldn’t provide evidence of training or certification.

But Russell said the crew had extensive real-world experience.

“Apparently, the federal government feels that reading pamphlets and watching safety videos are more effective and important than learning on the job,” he said.

The exchange reflects the tangle of disagreements that has erupted since the JJ’s explosion on Feb. 19.

That afternoon, a Heartland Midwest crew, hired by Time Warner Cable, was boring underground near the popular restaurant just west of the Plaza. Gas lines in the area were marked, although the accuracy of those markings and the crew’s use of them remain under investigation.

At some point the drilling crew breached a gas line, preliminary reports have said.

Crews from Missouri Gas Energy and the Kansas City Fire Department responded to a call of a natural gas leak around 5 p.m. An hour later the gas exploded, ripping through the restaurant.

One person, a restaurant worker, was killed. More than a dozen others were hurt. The restaurant was destroyed and several nearby buildings were damaged.

On Thursday, OSHA also cited JJ’s for allegedly having a “deficient emergency action plan.” The agency proposed a $2,000 fine for the violation.

In its statement, OSHA said it also began investigating Missouri Gas Energy’s role in the explosion, but withdrew after determining that the Missouri Public Service Commission had jurisdiction.

Instead, its most serious sanctions were aimed at Heartland Midwest. The two willful violations carry potential fines of $70,000 each.

One of the willful violations is under the agency’s general duty clause, which requires businesses to provide employees with a workplace “free of recognized hazards that (are) likely to cause death or serious bodily harm.”

If the allegations are sustained, the company also would be required to provide proof that it has fixed the problems that OSHA claims existed at the work site.

OSHA said Heartland Midwest has been placed in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which “focuses on recalcitrant employers that endanger workers by committing willful, repeat or failure-to-abate violations.”

Heartland Midwest has 15 business days to contest the findings and proposed penalties, OSHA said.

Several lawsuits have been filed in connection with the explosion and fire. An examination by the Public Service Commission is expected in September.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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