Artilces.OrlandoSentinal.com Federal workplace investigators have accused Blue Rhino of committing numerous safety violations in the wake of an explosion and fire at the propane depot in Tavares last that severely burned five employees. The blast occurred about 10 p.m. July 29 and was felt a mile away. A spark from a forklift ignited “a cloud of propane” behind the plant, said Ric Ridgway, a prosecutor who reviewed the State Fire Marshal’s investigation of the accident.
Ridgway said Wednesday that he found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
But the U.S. Occupational Safety and Administration found that Ferrellgas, Blue Rhino’s parent company, committed 26 safety violations — 20 of them “serious,” according to documents released Wednesday.
OSHA, responding to a records request by the Orlando Sentinel, reported that it first visited the plant the day after the propane-fed inferno rocketed hundreds of 20-pound metal cylinders into the night sky.
The federal workplace-safety agency concluded that Blue Rhino exposed employees to fire hazards by allowing them to drain or “bleed” leftover gas from the propane cylinders in the storage yard.
OSHA also found that Blue Rhino allowed employees to “deviate” from procedures, failing to prevent propane gas from venting into the atmosphere and allowing employees to drive forklifts without required training.
“At the site, forklift operators were required to operate a forklift daily for 10 hours non-stop” without training, the OSHA report found. OSHA fined Ferrell gas $73,000.
According to another OSHA finding, the failed to properly train workers, many of whom were supplied by a temporary-employment agency.
Customer Driven Staffing, which provided Blue Rhino with most of its hourly workers, also was cited and fined $9,000.
The depot on County 448 refurbishes, fills and distributes propane tanks sold at convenience stores, home-improvement centers and retailers such as Walmart for use by consumers to fuel outdoor grills and other outdoor cooking and heating appliances.
An estimated 85,000 propane tanks were stored on the premises when the fire broke out, including 50,000 ready for shipping.
Ferrellgas spokesman Scott Brockelmeyer did not respond when asked to comment on the OSHA investigation. Earlier, however, he wrote in an email that “it has never been Blue Rhino’s practice to bleed propane tanks in the yard under any circumstances.”
Brockelmeyer said the company was still reviewing the State Fire Marshal’s report, which it received Wednesday.
Ridgway, chief assistant state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Lake County, concluded in a letter to the Fire Marshal’s Office that “the explosion, and subsequent fire, was not caused on purpose, but was the result of an accidental ignition, apparently caused by a fork lift.”
Because of their injuries, some workers were interviewed by investigators months after the blast.
The last thing Allen Kelly remembered before Blue Rhino blew up was starting his forklift.
According to a co-worker’s account, employees working in the storage yard yelled for Kelly to “get away” as he was driving toward them to ask whether they needed help. Kelly turned off the forklift, then restarted it. Fire engulfed him. He was pulled off the burning forklift by co-worker Gene Williams, who drove him to the hospital.
Another critically injured worker, Leaj Anderson, 30, who suffered second- and third-degree burns to his face, shoulders, back and legs, told investigators that a forklift was frequently used in the area when tanks were being emptied. He also said gas alarms went off “all the time” and workers were instructed to “ignore them and to keep working.