Propane Blast Cause: Human Error

Monday, June 9, 2014 @ 12:06 PM gHale

Human error resulted in last summer’s blast and fire at the Blue Rhino depot in Tavares, FL, that injured seven workers, state investigators said.

The accident investigation, conducted by inspectors with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Bureau of Liquefied Gas Inspections, does not specifically blame anyone, but it does cite conflicting statements from managers and hourly workers.

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The blaze started when a spark from a forklift ignited a cloud of gas on the site about 10:30 p.m. July 29, triggering a spectacular fire that propelled hundreds of 20-pound metal tanks into the air and injured seven workers, according to the report.

Brandon Stewart, the depot’s acting plant manager at the time of the blast, told investigators he was not aware that plant employees were venting propane containers into the air behind the facility, which was a violation of the company’s operating procedures.

The practice of bleeding propane from tanks in the storage yard was not unusual, the report noted, citing statements of workers who ended up severely burned in the fire. Other non injured workers said it was not a surprise that others opened tank valves in the yard to drain the gas as that method would “make the work go quicker.”

The company could face state fines and other administrative action, department spokeswoman Erin Gillispie said.

Blue Rhino, a division of Ferrellgas, repairs, refurbishes and refills propane cylinders commonly used by consumers to fuel barbecue grills, gas-fueled fire pits and other outdoor heaters and cooking appliances.

Leaking cylinders or containers that must be empty before they can end up reconditioned. They need to end up at an “evacuation station” where the propane can released into a sealed system, according to the report. The machine sometimes broke down, however.

The night of the blast, workers had manually emptied propane cylinders in the storage yard by opening screws on the tanks. Propane vapors ignited when a forklift operator started up his machine, the report said.

The probe deemed the explosion an accident.

Blue Rhino also is contesting 26 workplace-safety violations and more than $70,000 in fines assessed by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the wake of the blast at the Lake County plant, which reopened in December.

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