We know you’ve seen the statistics before. You know, those “Debbie Downer” lists that OSHA puts out each year about the most costly and horrific occupational incidents. From struck-by incidents and work-related falls to explosions and arc flash fires, sometimes it seems like OSHA just wants to rain on your parade.
We don’t want to add any doom and gloom to your work day. But, the truth is, the past decade saw some shocking fire-related incidents.
You probably saw some of these fatalities on the news. Do you remember seeing photos of the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona back in 2013? Images of the juxtaposition between engulfing black smoke and blinding white flames left an imprint in the memories of thousands. And who could forget the recent and cataclysmic wildfires that shook up California at the end of last year?
Many times, accidents are truly accidents. Other times, steps could’ve been taken to prevent a small spark from becoming a deadly disaster.
Take a look at our top 10 list of the past decade’s craziest fire-related incidents. There’s no doubt that these events did unforgettable damage. But, read closely. Learn what equipment and steps were missing from these workers’ operations. Think about what you would and should do in case of emergency. Then, take action. Elevate your protection and safety procedures to the next level.
Kleen Energy Power Plant, Middletown, CT (February 7, 2010)
During a gas blow procedure, in which contract workers at the Kleen Energy plant were using natural gas at high pressure to clean pipes, the gas was met by an ignition source. The result was an enormous explosion that killed six workers and caused injury to 30 others. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) investigated the incident.They concluded that the natural gas blowing process was an inherently unsafe practice. This led to the prohibition of the procedure.
Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion, Montcoal, WV (April 5, 2010)
The Upper Big Branch mine explosion has been deemed the worst US mining disaster since 1970 with a fatality count of 29 workers. At the time of this event, the owner of the mine, Massey Energy, had a longstanding history of safety violations, including those involving methane gas. According to the investigation, it didn’t appear as though the last four fallen miners attempted to find emergency equipment. Laura Walter of EHS Today summed it up best - during this calamity, “rescuers, family members, and the Montcoal, WV community had their worst fears confirmed.”
Deepwater Horizon Explosion (April 20, 2010)
Not only did this explosion and subsequent fire kill 11 workers and injure 17 others— they also resulted in the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Even worse, they led to a huge offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We can’t sugarcoat the impact of this explosion. The oil spill that it caused was considered the biggest marine oil spill in the world, as well as the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the US. According to reports, The rig’s management knew that important safety equipment had been previously compromised. But, they ignored this fact to continue operations.
West Fertilizer Company Explosion, West, TX (April 17, 2013)
This disastrous event is riddled with safety citations, heroic volunteer firefighters, and even criminal intent. On April 17, 2013, emergency responders were made aware of a tremendous explosion at the West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility in West, Texas. The result? Fifteen deaths, over 160 injuries, and more than 150 destroyed buildings. It was confirmed that ammonium nitrate caused the explosion. Interestingly enough, the plant was cited for improper storage of anhydrous ammonia by OSHA in the 80s.
Years later in May of 2016, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives stated that the fire was set intentionally. But, the true guilty party still remains a mystery. According to this comprehensive article from the Washington Post, two of the fallen firefighters had alcohol in their systems; yet they were volunteers. The put themselves at the forefront of danger, so that other community members could escape the flames.
Yarnell Hill Fire Yarnell, AZ (June 30, 2013)
This fire was unavoidable and unpredictable. It began with a lightning strike and persisted due to Arizona’s hot, dry conditions. Due to a shift in wind direction, the fire moved faster and grew more destructive by the minute. It impeded the firefighters’ escape route which trapped them in a canyon. This event was essentially a natural disaster. Still, the toll it took on the Yarnell community was earth-shattering. The lives of 19 firefighters were lost. Over 2,000 acres of land were demolished by the whipping flames. Over a dozen families, backed by an entire community, mourned the losses.
Oakland Warehouse Fire, Oakland, CA (December 2, 2016)
The name of this Oakland warehouse, Ghost Ship, served as a foreshadowing of the events that would ensue on the night of December 2, 2016. The warehouse, which had been converted to an artist collective, was hosting a concert on the night of the fire. Ironically, the building’s permits did not allow for residential or entertainment uses during this time. In June of 2017, two of the warehouse’s proprietors were arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter due to the fire. The deaths of 36 people make this event the deadliest fire in Oakland’s history.
Oil Field Explosion, Belfield, ND (January 4, 2017)
A treater, in the oil and gas industry, is responsible for separating oil from water and gas. Treater houses, the buildings that hold this equipment, are found on oil well sites. During the afternoon of January 4th, an oil well site worker lost his life due to a treater house that went up in flames. The explosion and subsequent fire that engulfed the treater house are still being investigated.
Fire Response Incident, Dolton, IL (June 10, 2017)
Brush fires can be unpredictably serious and, unfortunately, sometimes even deadly. While assisting another fire department in extinguishing brush fires, one employee realized that the smoke and heat were starting to get to him. While leaning over a fence for support, the employee mentioned that he needed to remove his airpack. By the time a coworker came to help, the paramedics had to be called for assistance. The affected employee was then rushed to the hospital, where he lost his life due to cardiac arrest. OSHA’s reports summarize the accident as a complication switching air packs.
Flash Fire Fatalities, Jasper, AL (June 12, 2017)
While four employees were downstairs at an Express Lube in Jasper, a flash fire took place. This led to the hospitalization of one worker, with the three other workers losing their lives. While OSHA’s accident investigation for this event has not yet been closed, a video from the site provides hints at the cause of the incident. The video showed that a 55 gallon drum of cleaner was closed using a rag. Further, an evaporative cooler, plus multiple other power cords, were all plugged into a 3-in-1 extension. Overall, the accumulation of highly flammable liquid and vapor resulted in the flash fire.
Northern California Wildfires (October 2017)
You can’t really discuss tragic fire-related incidents without mention of the recent wildfires that swept through California last year. A series of 250 wildfires demolished a significant portion of the state, leaving nearly 250,000 acres scorched. California Governor, Jerry Brown, stated that this event was “truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced.” 44 civilians lost their lives. Almost 9,000 buildings were destroyed. The financial burden of the fires cost upwards of $9.5 billion. And unfortunately, the state is still combating the repercussions of this natural disaster. Industries, businesses, communities, and families experienced unthinkable loss. Our thoughts and prayers go out to these individuals.
These tragedies are just that - horrendous tragedies that should never have happened. But like all things in life, there may be something to learn from them.
It’s not enough to do the bare minimum when it comes to safety in the workplace. PPE, engineering and administrative controls, and regulations are put in place with the goal of preventing life-threatening incidents like the ones above.
What can you do to keep your workplace safer?
Have precautionary controls in place. Invest in the best equipment and protective gear. Take the time to train your workers on their equipment, operational procedures, and rescue plans. Comply with regulations and standards. Then, take it to the next level. When safety is at risk, go above and beyond.
Don’t allow OSHA to add your business to next year’s list of citations or incidents.