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Airgas cited following May fire that hurt two

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal investigators say that they found serious safety violations at a Putnam County industrial gas distributor where two workers were hurt in a May explosion.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Airgas Inc. for six violations in an investigation that followed the May 13 fire at its facility on W.Va. 62 in Black Betsy.

Four of the citations were classified as "serious," and carried a total of $19,000 in proposed fines. OSHA lists violations as serious if "there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known."

Airgas has appealed the citations to the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, said OSHA spokesman Michael D'Aquino.

Fifty cylinders of acetylene were believed to be the source of the explosion, which sent two workers to the hospital with burns. Acetylene is a gas commonly used for welding and for torches that cut metal.

The largest of the fines -- $7,000 -- was for a citation that alleged Airgas did not comply with OSHA rules for the safe transfer, handling, storage and use of acetylene cylinders.

"Employees were cracking open the valves of several dozen cylinders of flammable acetylene gas to drain them without any attachment to the valves to prevent the release, or spitting, of acetone from the cylinders and the creation of an acetylene fire," OSHA inspectors wrote in the citation.

"They were just letting them drain out into the atmosphere, which creates a risk of fire," said Prentice Cline, director of OSHA's Charleston area office.

OSHA also alleged that the facility contained equipment and wiring that was not approved for use in hazardous locations, did not provide railing on exposed stairways, and did not train workers in the proper use of fire extinguishers.

Radnor, Pa.-based Airgas is the largest distributor of industrial, medical and specialty gases in the country. It has more than 15,000 employees in more than 1,100 locations.

In its most recent annual report to shareholders, Airgas says its operations "manage and distribute hazardous materials," but that "safety is a primary focus in all we do."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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