The owner of a Minden plant where an explosion killed one employee and injured four others last year asked state officials Wednesday to reduce the $144,000 in fines levied against him.
Walter Gonzalez, owner of aerosol can recycler Depressurized Technologies International, argued through his attorney Noel Manoukian that the deadly accident was the result of "employee misconduct."
"They egregiously departed from the (customary procedure) by removing the (fume) hood that could have prevented this accident," Manoukian told a five-member review panel from the state's Occupational Safety and Health Enforcement section in Reno.
He argued that employee removal of the fume hood constituted at least a mitigating circumstance that should lower fines against Gonzalez, or even completely reverse the agency's finding he willfully provided an unsafe workplace.
The hearing will continue, with a decision expected in May.
Manoukian said Gonzalez is challenging the agency's findings his company violated a handful of state and federal workplace regulations to "willful" and "serious" degrees. The fines are tied to those designations. Gonzalez has also agreed not to contest one charge of improper procedures, for which the punishment is an $800 fine.
John Wiles, attorney for the state's Division of Industrial Relations, argued that a jury-rigged system for puncturing and draining aerosol gel and foam cans created a gaseous mix that surrounded workers, creating the ingredients for disaster.
"It was all about making a choice," he told the panel. "The evidence will show Mr. Gonzalez, president of DTI, made several choices that resulted in severe bodily injury and death to his employees."
Improper workplace procedures included inadequate air-purification systems, non-compliant electrical equipment, and improper training and medical testing for respirator use.
Raul Gonzalez, a worker who was severely burned in the explosion, testified he was told that the work conditions were safe, even for working without respiratory equipment.
"The clothes that we wore always smelled" like chemicals, Gonzalez said through an interpreter.
"The day of the explosion we mixed several liquids that were supposedly all water."
Gonzalez, still recuperating from burns that scarred his hands, neck and face, survived the explosion along with Susano Lopez, Cecilio San Juan and Elias San Juan, who were also severely injured. Gonzalez's brother, Jaime Gonzalez Sanchez, died Sept. 26, nine days after the accident.
During testimony Terry Taylor, an investigator with the East Fork Fire and Paramedics District, said the system workers were using before the explosion defied reasonable safety precautions.
"To me (the process) is inherently dangerous when you have all the products telling you not to do it (on warning labels), and you are manually beating the products" with a mallet, he said. To empty the containers, workers physically pierced the cans with spikes and pounded the cans with mallets before the waste was drained and moved by forklift before disposal.
Taylor said a spark from the forklift engine may have ignited heavy gases that built up on the shop floor.
Walter Gonzalez, 46, also faces seven felony and seven misdemeanor criminal charges -- including performance of an act or neglect of duty in willful or wanton disregard of safety or persons or property in connection with a fatal blast. Prosecutions are being pursued by the Douglas County Sheriff's Department and the state attorney general's office.
Approximately 10 representatives from the Northern Nevada chapter of the Alliance for Worker's Rights were also on hand for Wednesday's hearing, picketing to protest a penalty reduction.
"We feel the process of negotiating down fines and penalties breaks OSHE's back," said Tom Stoneburner, alliance state director. "It takes away the one tool they have to enforce laws."
Stoneburner said the group became aware of the OSHE appeals process following the explosion of the Sierra Chemicals plant east of Reno in January 1998. In that accident four workers died and six were injured. The company appealed more than $900,000 in fines and ended up paying $221,000.
Workers and their relatives also have filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court in Reno seeking $225,000 in damages.