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Second employee joins suit against Airgas over Putnam explosion

By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer

WINFIELD — A second former employee at Airgas USA’s Putnam County facility has joined a lawsuit against the company over an explosion last May.

Ronald Alan Forren teamed up with William Lee Parrigan, who launched the first suit against the company in March, in a new complaint filed Thursday.

The suit alleges Airgas and Charles William Boyles, plant manager of the now-shuttered Black Betsy facility, placed them in an “extremely unsafe working condition” that led to serious injuries.

Rich Holtzapfel, the workers’ attorney, said the previous suit that only Parrigan filed will be dismissed.

The workers’ suit alleges Boyles regularly ordered Forren, of Hurricane, and Parrigan, of Winfield, to “bleed out” tanks containing acetylene gas by opening their valves to allow it to escape.

The suit states this was performed “without attaching any of the cylinders to a blow-down manifold system in order to prevent the release of the highly flammable acetylene gas into the atmosphere.”

The suit argues requiring the employees to work in these conditions violated federal and state regulations and industry standards.

J. Barrett Strzelec, Airgas’ director of investor relations and corporate communications, wrote previously in an email that the company doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits. The company has yet to file an answer to the complaint.

Acetylene gas is commonly used for welding and for torches that cut metal. Airgas’ website states it has “the highest flame temperature of any common hydrocarbon” and burns at 5580 degrees Fahrenheit.

The suit states that around May 13, 2013, Parrigan and Forren were bleeding out about 150 overfilled tanks so they’d be empty for use the next day.

About 10 minutes and 48 cylinders in, there was a loud explosion in the “blow down” bunker where the two were working.

The explosion blew off Forren’s shirt, burnt off all the hair on his head and “violently threw his body over the wall at the edge of the bunker and up against the perimeter fence,” the suit states. He was severely burned, but went searching for Parrigan.

Parrigan recalls everything going black before “he was immediately engulfed by flames.”

Parrigan states that even though he was severely burned, he ran to get a fire extinguisher because he thought Forren was still in the conflagration. But the first cylinder explosion had set off a chain reaction that eventually blew up perhaps more than 50 tanks.

In addition to burns, both workers say they now suffer from hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the acetylene gas explosion, which injured only two workers, and cited Airgas for six violations, four of which 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.”

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.

U.S. Department of Labor spokeswoman Joanna Hawkins wrote in a March email that Airgas was contesting the violations and is in settlement discussions with OSHA.

The workers are seeking compensatory and punitive damages in their suit.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1254.


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