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Three men were opening and closing a malfunctioning valve on a furnace at the Fairfield Works steel plant last September when it erupted into a fiery explosion, sending Leo Bridges, Edward Bryant and a third co-worker to the hospital, said Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials.

Bridges, 61, and Bryant, 53, died later due to their injuries. The third man ended up rushed to a burn trauma unit in critical condition. Fairfield Works, part of U.S. Steel, consists of steelmaking and finishing operations. The company has headquarters in Pittsburgh and employs more than 40,000 workers.

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OSHA inspectors determined that the explosion was the result of opening and closing a high-pressure valve that contained oxygen and hydrated lime. The men were doing the work while the furnace was operating, as directed by the department’s management, inspectors said. Proposed penalties total $107,900.

“Management knew that attempting to operate the valve while the furnace was still running placed workers at risk, yet they allowed them to do it because they didn’t want the production line down for hours,” said Ramona Morris, OSHA’s area director in Birmingham, AL. “This employer chose productivity over the safety of its workers, and two people died as a result of this decision.”

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OSHA issued the employer a willful citation for not developing and using a procedure to control the hazardous energy to allow workers to operate the valves on the furnace while it is in operation. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirement, or with plain indifference to worker safety and health.

Seven serious citations ended up issued for not developing a procedure to prevent the furnace from releasing hazardous energy while workers performed maintenance; missing exit signs; an improperly installed exit gate; and not training workers to recognize hazardous conditions with the oxygen system. A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

U.S. Steel Corp. underwent inspections 14 times by OSHA since 2009 and issued citations for amputation hazards, unsafe crane operation, violations associated with flammable liquids and other hazards.

OSHA proposes that U.S. Steel Corp. end up placed in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program for demonstrating indifference to its OSH Act obligations to provide a safe and healthful workplace for employees.

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