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Airgas denies creating unsafe conditions for Putnam workers hurt in explosion

By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer

Airgas USA and the plant manager at its now-shuttered Putnam County facility are denying allegations by two former workers suing the company over injuries they received in an explosion last May.

William Lee Parrigan, of Winfield, was first to file suit against the company in March. Hurricane resident Ronald Alan Forren later joined the lawsuit, which alleges Airgas and Black Betsy facility plant manager Charles William Boyles placed them in an “extremely unsafe working condition” that led to serious injuries.

In answers filed late last month, Airgas and Boyles admit that Parrigan and Forren were injured in the explosion, but deny creating any unsafe working conditions and also deny “any deliberate or intentional misconduct” on their part led to the workers’ injuries.

The defendants, both represented by the West Virginia law firm Robinson & McElwee, also argue that the workers’ only basis to sue over allegations they were not provided a “reasonably safe workplace” and not properly trained or supervised is under the “deliberate intent” provisions of the West Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act. The company declined to comment on the litigation.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the explosion and cited Airgas for six violations, four of which were classified as “serious” and carried a total of $19,000 in proposed fines. But OSHA has agreed to halve the amount of money Airgas owes — in part by dismissing a serious citation with a $5,000 fine — after the company contested.

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 — originally $7,000, now dropped to $6,000 — was for a citation that alleged Airgas did not comply with OSHA rules for the safe transfer, handling, storage and use of acetylene cylinders — the culprits in the explosion.

“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.

The workers’ suit alleges Boyles regularly ordered them 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.

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. They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages in their suit.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.


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