Local News

Wednesday, Sep 25 2013 06:39 PM

Report: Worker killed in PG&E demolition disregarded safety orders

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The old PG&E power plant at Coffee Road and Rosedale Highway, near the area where a worker died June 19, 2012, as shown shortly after the death.

    click to expand click to collapse
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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    A worker died June 19, 2012 at the old PG&E power plant at Coffee Road and Rosedale Highway. This photo was taken shortly after the death.

    click to expand click to collapse
BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

A Los Angeles man who died last year while working on a Bakersfield demolition job failed to fix safety problems his supervisor had pointed out just before the accident, according to an apparent state investigative report.

The document, a copy of which was obtained by The Californian, reiterates calls for stronger oversight of contractors by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., owner of the Coffee Road plant where the worker died and where another demolition accident last month severely injured a Bakersfield man.

The June 19, 2012, accident occurred as 51-year-old Luis Roberto Minjarez was torch-cutting sections from an old, 3-million-gallon fuel tank at the plant. The employee of Covina-based Cleveland Wrecking Co. was performing the work while suspended in a man lift, an arm-like machine that cradles a person at its highest extension.

After calling for a work break at about 9 a.m., a supervisor noticed Minjarez's lift was parked parallel to the tank's wall and that its carriage was positioned too close to the tank, the report states. "He instructed (Minjarez) to reposition his lift before stepping away," it reads.

The report implies that Minjarez might have avoided the accident had he followed the supervisor's orders.

But instead, the man and his co-workers resumed work on the tank before the boss returned. That's when the 40-foot-high wall Minjarez was working on collapsed, knocking over his man lift and throwing him to the ground.

"The collapsing uncut wall struck the man lift, which did not roll back as its wheels were parallel to the wall," the report states.

Although he was wearing a safety harness and protective equipment, Minjarez died of his injuries after being transported to a local hospital.

The report notes that Minjarez's team had experience demolishing similar-sized tanks.

Titled "PG&E's Kern Fatality Investigative Report," the seven-page document appears to have been prepared by two investigators with the California Public Utilities Commission's Safety & Enforcement Division. Undated, it makes reference to CPUC correspondence from as recent as June.

Both investigators named in the document -- Chris Parkes and Risk Tse -- declined to comment on it. Tse said the document had not been released publicly; he asked how The Californian had acquired a copy.

CPUC spokespeople did not respond to requests to authenticate the report.

FALLOUT

Cal-OSHA has levied $20,250 in fines against Cleveland for the accident. Most of that sum stems from a determination that the tank did not have lateral support. The company has appealed the penalty.

A PG&E spokesman said Cleveland has "assumed full responsibility" for the accident, and that the contractor revised its procedures and safely removed the tanks after the fatality.

Cleveland declined to comment on the report, and Minjarez's family would not discuss the accident.

The Kern County coroner's office did not respond to a request last week for an autopsy report on Minjarez's death.

The CPUC, PG&E's primary regulator, ordered the utility to commission a "root cause analysis" of the accident. The agency did so partly because of a man's death and two other injuries at a previous PG&E power plant demolition Jan. 28, 2008 at Hunters Point in San Francisco.

The CPUC has refused to provide a copy of the analysis, saying its investigation of the accident has not been completed. PG&E has also declined to share a copy of the report.

But the investigative report, as well as copies of correspondence between the CPUC and PG&E obtained by The Californian, say that the root cause analysis concluded that the utility lacked the expertise to qualify contractors.

The analysis also found that PG&E's procurement process failed to validate contractors' safety programs and data, and that the utility neglected to oversee contractors in a way that would ensure job site safety, the documents say.

The investigative report discusses how the accident led to creation of a safety program calling for PG&E to hire outside experts to help it screen and oversee contractors.

2013 ACCIDENT

PG&E says it had implemented elements of the program into limited effect when continuing demolition at the plant severely injured a Bakersfield resident Aug. 3.

At about 6 a.m. that day, debris from an explosion to bring down boiler structures at the site flew across Coffee Road and struck several people. The debris caused serious damage to the legs of 43-year-old Jerry Wood.

Wood's Bakersfield attorney, Dennis Thelen, said his client has undergone 23 surgeries but that there remains a "huge question" as to whether the sales and marketing director will regain use of his legs.

The company and the CPUC have declined to say conclusively whether the safety program had been put in effect locally in advance of the August boiler structures explosion. But a PG&E spokesman emphasized that the utility had already hired Cleveland when the safety program was designed.

PG&E hired Cleveland, part of URS Corp., a global engineering, design and construction firm based in San Francisco, to demolish the 1940s-era power plant that was put on standby in 1985 and closed permanently in 1995.

PG&E fired Cleveland in late August, saying the contractor "failed to perform to our satisfaction on the project."

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