Wood floor manufacturer cited, fined in fatal sawdust collapse

Becky Campbell • Aug 4, 2018 at 12:12 AM

A Johnson City wood flooring manufacturer cited and fined after a worker’s death in March was able to negotiate a $14,000 fine reduction and the deletion of several items within the citation.

QEP Co. Inc., on Eddie Williams Road, was originally levied a $44,000 fine by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It was also cited with 11 items regarding workplace safety requirements, some of which related to the death of James A. Reed Jr., 47, when he was engulfed by sawdust in a holding silo.

State officials learned about the accident from media reports, according to documentation in the investigative file TOSHA provided through an open records request by the Press.

The fatal incident happened around 2:30 p.m. on March 10 when Reed was cleaning a silo where a fire had occurred the previous week. According to documents provided by TOSHA, Reed was using a lift machine to reach the access panel to the interior of the silo.

Johnson City firefighters had responded to that fire twice — first on March 4 and again on March 5 when it apparently re-ignited. Firefighters pumped water from the top of the silo and sprayed water from the access panel.

Before leaving the scene on March 5, firefighters told someone at QEP that the fire was out but that four feet of wet material was stuck to the sides of the silo. It was that material that Reed was attempting to clean off when he was killed.

Company officials told the TOSHA investigator that Reed and other employees had gone through confined space training in January and would have known to not enter the silo.

Another employee whose duty was to “lock out” the silo and turn off the power supply said he didn’t feel it was necessary because Reed would not be going inside the silo for the cleanup job. But evidence gathered at the scene included cell phone video Reed took from inside the silo several hours before the sawdust collapsed on him.

Around 2:30, an employee was operating a front-end loader near the silo and saw a cloud of dust come out of the access panel where Reed was working. That employee drove to where he could see the opening and saw the aerial lift basket full of sawdust, but did not see Reed.

The employee tried to reach Reed on a handheld radio, but could not and immediately alerted other employees and called 911.

Reed’s co-workers started trying to dig him out until the fire department arrived and took over those operations.

Investigators ultimately determined that Reed had entered the silo and that the sawdust material stuck to the inside of the silo broke free and covered him up. The report indicates Reed did not have a full body harness on, so he was able to climb through the access hole unrestricted.

State investigators inspected the site more than once during the investigation and found several violations that related, and some that did not, to the fatal accident. Through the citation process, QEP entered an agreement with TOSHA for eight of the violations to be deleted.

The three remaining violations were:

• The employee was operating and working from an aerial lift 21 feet above ground without any method of fall protection.

• QEP failed to take effective measures to prevent the employee from entering the silo while conducting cleaning operations of the interior walls of the silo.

• QEP failed to evaluate the designated rescue services’ ability to be available and respond to a rescue in a timely manner during the time the employee was inside the silo.

“The settlement agreement outlined additional steps the employer agreed to take to prevent an incident of this nature occurring in the future,” said Chris Cannon, public information officer for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. “The amended citation has not yet been issued by Tennessee OSHA. The amended citation will set a new abatement date by which the employer must abate the items cited or request additional time. The employer agrees to retrain all employees who could be exposed to a similar hazard.”

The initial fine assessed to the citation was $44,000 — $4,000 for each item — but that was reduced to $30,000 in the agreement worked out between QEP and the state.

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