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OSHA drops serious violation citations

Thursday, July 14, 2005

North Arkansas Electric Co-op was issued a citation July 6 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in connection with an Aug. 31, 2004, blast that killed three co-op employees at a Mountain Home substation.

"Our investigation is complete, and it's now in the hands of our lawyers," said Paul Hanson, area director for OSHA. "They were cited for three serious violations originally, but it was reduced to one non-serious violation."

Mel Coleman, CEO at NAEC, said his company reached a compromise with OSHA prior to a hearing June 23 before Federal Administrative Judge Nancy J. Spies of Atlanta.

"We are extremely pleased with this agreement," said Coleman. "From the beginning we felt like we didn't do anything wrong and that we had followed all the safety guildlines. We have been vindicated."

Desi Jones, 41, of Salem, along with Ivey Hodge, 59, and Jesse Zimmer, 27, both of Mountain Home, died of injuries sustained after an explosion inside the Baxter 1 substation.

A fourth man, 26-year-old Chris Hickman, who graduated from Highland, is still recovering from his injuries.

Coleman said the four men were moving a voltage regulator when the explosion occurred.

Three months after the blast, inspectors cited NAEC for three safety violations: not adhering to the manufacturer's requirements for removing a voltage regulator, not performing safety tests before removing the voltage regulator and allowing two untrained employees to assist in the regulator's removal.

The first two violations were dropped and the third was downgraded to "other than serious safety violation" after months of legal battles between OSHA and NAEC.

Hanson said the amount of the fine for an "other than serious violation" would not exceed $5,000.

"We came away from the first meeting (before the original citations were issued) with the OSHA people in Little Rock feeling pretty good," Coleman said. "The higher ups in Washington, D.C., didn't feel the same way. They wanted larger fines."

Citations issued by OSHA fall into three categories: other than serious, serious and willfully serious. Willfully serious is the most severe category with fines ranging up to $70,000 per violation, Hanson said.

Hanson said NAEC cooperated and provided information throughout the investigation and subsequent litigation.

"They furnished whatever information we requested," Hanson said.

Coleman said NAEC expected to be cited from the beginning.

"When people die in an accident like this, OSHA is more than likely going to give you a citation," Coleman said.

Hanson said that citations are often levied in cases were workers die, but not always. He said in approximately 20 percent of the cases in which a worker dies no citations are issued.

Coleman said NAEC has been vigilant in promoting a culture of safety with its employees but changes are on the way.

"This is an inherently dangerous job," Coleman said. "And one thing I'll take away from this is that there is always room for safety improvements."

There have been four separate instances in the last 10 years in which lives were lost in this field of work statewide, Hanson said.

Coleman said he hopes the community never forgets how the Aug. 31 blast changed the lives of four families forever.

"Let's never loose sight of the fact that this is an absolute tragedy," Coleman said. "Those men were the best of what we have to offer at NAEC and our hearts and prayers go out to their families. This was a tremendous loss for all of us."

He said NAEC has provided support to the families but has not given them money for their losses.

Coleman said any monetary compensation to the families will come through workman's compensation insurance. He said none of the families has pursued legal action against NAEC.

While not giving money directly to the families, Coleman said his company has been instrumental in raising thousands of dollars in donations.

"Those men were like our own family and their families are a part of our family too," Coleman said.

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