- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee officials have fined a Knoxville steel mill for a hydrogen explosion that threw molten metal and slag onto workers, killing one and injuring five others.

The Knoxville News Sentinel (https://bit.ly/1riuWcb) reports the Gerdau Ameristeel plant melts scrap metal and turns it into billets for later shaping into rebar.

Water is used to cool parts of the production line, but leaks are common. The May 15 explosion occurred when a leak caused more than 1,000 gallons of water to pour into a 2,900-degree-Fahrenheit electric arc furnace, tossing out “fragments of molten metal and debris,” according to a report by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Workplace procedures call for employees to shut off the water and evacuate the area when there is a leak. But on the day of the accident, employees did not leave the area as a pump directed 200 gallons of water per minute into the furnace for at least seven minutes before it was shut off.

Larry Releford, the employee who was killed, was a mechanic who was looking for the source of the water leak when the explosion occurred. The 42-year-old suffered burns to 55 percent of his body and third-degree burns to his lungs, according to TOSHA.

There were no supervisors on the shift at the time of the explosion, and Gerdau Ameristeel did not have a detection system in the furnace to warn of the presence of water or the accumulation of explosive gases.

TOSHA issued a $5,000 penalty against the company because it did not furnish a workplace “free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm” to employees. The agency issued another $3,200 penalty because Releford was not wearing aluminized protective clothing while checking on the source of the water leak. A further $200 penalty was for an 11-inch hole in the floor of the plant that was not covered.

In addition to the fines, Gerdau Ameristeel has agreed to install monitoring equipment to prevent another explosion. TOSHA administrator Steve Hawkins said the company did not contest the agency’s findings, and it has until Thursday to pay the fine.

Two spokeswomen for Gerdau Ameristeel did not respond attempts from the newspaper to get comments on the findings.

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Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, https://www.knoxnews.com

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