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February 11, 1997

Wenatchee-area smelter cited/fined for worker safety violations

TUMWATER - Astech Corp., doing business as American Silicon Technologies, a Wenatchee-area smelter that produces silicon for the aluminum industry, has been cited and fined by the Department of Labor & Industries for willfully violating worker safety and health regulations.

The Rock Island employer - cited for 13 willful, 32 serious and four general violations of industrial health regulations - was fined more than $113,000. Most of the violations occurred in the furnace area of the plant where employees were exposed to confined-space entry and heat hazards. Willful violations, the most punitive the agency can cite, indicate that the employer either intentionally violated worker safety and health rules or knew that a rule was being violated and made no reasonable effort to correct it.

The employer has 15 working days from the date of receipt to appeal the violations.

In addition, a separate safety investigation completed last month resulted in four serious violations and three general violations with a total of $6,500 in penalties. That citation included guard rail issues, emergency washing facilities and personal protective equipment violations. The employer has appealed those violations, and the matter is currently under review by the agency.

All the violations and penalties resulted from inspections that originated with employee complaints last summer.

During the course of the industrial health inspection, the agency issued two orders of immediate restraint to stop activities that were exposing employees to unsafe conditions. Those restraint orders were withdrawn after the employer modified operations to eliminate the exposure.

The plant, built in 1942, uses three 18-by-27 foot furnace pots to smelt quartz, coal, wood chips and coke into molten silicon that then is poured into molds and allowed to cool. Temperatures in the furnaces range up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Inspectors said that tests during the course of the inspections disclosed that the workers were exposed to temperatures up to 250 degrees. Tests indicated that the average worker perspired between .6 and 1.4 liters per hour.

Heat stress is a hazard that affects the body's ability to cool itself. Extended exposure can result in heat stroke, heat exhaustion, failure of the liver, kidney and other major organs and heart attack. If the hazard cannot be abated through engineering controls or modifications, then the employer must limit the worker's exposure and provide adequate rest and recovery periods.

The first willful violation stemmed from worker exposure to temperature extremes and radiant heat. It carried a penalty of $42,000. Specifically, the employer failed to provide adequate protection or rest/cool down periods for workers who cleaned, swept, entered or worked in the immediate vicinity of the furnaces. The employer also failed to provide adequate water or replenishment fluids and in fact charged workers for commercial replacement fluids. Water fountains were located an inappropriate distance - within six feet - of the operating furnaces.

The employer also failed to adequately monitor workers exposed to heat stress for the purpose of determining appropriate work/rest regimens for various tasks in the plant.

The remaining willful violations, also carrying a total of $42,000 in penalties, centered on confined space violations related to the furnace area of the plant. Employers are required to have written plans spelling out how workers are to be protected from the hazards of confined space. A confined space is defined as a space with limited or restricted means of entry and exit - not designed for continuous occupancy - that is large enough for an employee to bodily enter and perform work.

In addition, there are special requirements for confined spaces that:

  • Contain or have the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere.
  • Have the potential to trap an entrant.
  • Present other recognized safety or health hazards.
These are known as permit-required confined spaces, and they require a permit that specifically addresses the hazards of the space and the required worker protection. In general terms, American Silicon Technology was cited for failingto:
  • Have a written confined space plan.
  • Post signs warning employees of confined space hazards.
  • Train and equip workers for confined space entry.
  • Test and monitor for oxygen-deficient, toxic or flammable atmospheres in confined space hazards.
  • Provide proper ventilation for workers in confined space hazards.
  • Provide communication devices for workers/attendants overseeing confined space entry work.
  • Furnish proper rescue and emergency equipment to workers engaged in confined space tasks.
  • Inform an outside contractor of precautions that must be taken for workers exposed to confined-space hazards.
Besides the willful violations, the employer was cited for 32 serious violations. These violations, carrying total penalties of $29,020, cited a myriad of company >failures to protect workers from the hazards of:
  • Blood borne pathogens.
  • Elevated platforms without guardrails.
  • Accidental start-up of equipment (lockout/tagout).
  • Secondary escape routes in case of fire.
  • Exposure to silica dust (respirator program).
  • Noise exposure (hearing protection).
  •  
In addition, the company was cited four general violations - without penalty - for failing to:

  • Provide personal protective equipment free-of-charge to employees.
  • Create an employee emergency action plan for fires and other emergencies.
  • Ensure that employee exposure records were provided to employees upon request.
  • Conduct a certified hazard assessment of the worksite.

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