The week before the explosion, Dallas Foulk spoke with Charlene Cheney, the owner of Toby C’s Midtown Tavern in Omaha, Nebraska. “I’ve got to find another job. This job is going to kill me”, was Foulk’s statement as recounted by Charlene for the local news a few days later.
On 14 April 2015 at 1:30 pm, his words came true.
It was a mostly cloudy day with a little wind from the south all morning. Temperatures were in the 40’s when the crew from Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services arrived at the facility owned by GE Capital Rail. Their job was to clean out railcar NATX303912, which had last contained a load of an oil field by-product commonly called “drip gasoline” that is known to be extremely flammable with a flash point around zero degrees Fahrenheit.
The crew consisted of three men: Joe Coschka, Dallas Foulk, and Adrian LaPour. Coschka was stationed on top of the railcar, acting as the permit-required confined space supervisor and attendant. Foulk and LaPour entered the tank to remove residuals and clean the inside of the tank.
Prior to entry, Coschka detected vapors inside the railcar of 22% and 320% of LEL (Lower Explosive Limit). No mention was made in any of the reports of the results for oxygen levels inside the tank. The two men were still allowed to enter the 30,000 gallon tank even though OSHA rules do not allow entry when vapor concentration is greater than 10% of LEL.
Foulk and LaPour were in the tank for an unidentified period of time during which they were collecting residue from the bottom of the tank and putting it into 5 gallon pails. When the pails were filled, they were passed up to Coschka. It was not disclosed where he put the waste.
At about 1:30 pm, Foulk was exiting the railcar via the ladder. He was about half way out of the manway when the fumes in the tank were ignited by an unknown source. Houses in the surrounding blocks were rattled. Witnesses described a pillar of flames reaching far above the top of the railcar, but lasted only a few seconds.
Foulk, like a cork in a bottle, was blown 50 feet into the air and landed some distance away on the ground. Shortly afterwards at the hospital, he was declared dead. The ladder was found approximately 200 feet from the railcar.
Coschka was injured in the blast, sustaining lacerations and a potential fracture in his spine, but was otherwise unharmed. He credits his use of the harness and lanyard with keeping him from getting thrown off the tanker by the blast. Subsequently, he has been severely troubled by the events and blames himself for the deaths of his friends.
LaPour was trapped inside the flaming tanker. Coschka later described hearing him calling for the ladder so he could get out, but the ladder was nowhere to be found. It took 6 hours for firefighters to recover his body.
Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services is mostly owned by Steven Braithwaite, who also owns Omaha Transloading LLC and Demolition Contractors Inc. All of them have been in trouble with OSHA in the recent past for similar offenses.
Braithwaite’s demolition company was cited in 2005 for several hazards including a willful violation for having an insufficient program for protecting employees from respiratory hazards.
His other rail-related company, Omaha Transloading, was cited in 2012 for serious violations of respiratory protection standards and for electrical hazards.
As recently as November of 2013, Braithwaite’s Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services was cited by OSAH for violations of hearing conservation requirements, respiratory protection standards, confined space procedures and powered industrial truck rules. Bonita Winingham, the OSHA area director, stated that this inspection revealed problems with flammable storage, powered industrial trucks, over-exposure to noise, respiratory protection and confined space work. $8000 in fines were eventually paid. Mr. Braithwaite didn’t care. His operation continued without any improvement. One and a half years later, two men paid a much higher price for Braithwaite’s negligence.
Clearly, Steven Braithwaite has no regard for the law, no regard for common industry safety practices, and no regard for the safety of his employees. His lack of concern for the extremely dangerous conditions his workers encountered daily is directly linked to the explosion and the deaths of Dallas Foulk and Adrian LaPour.
The same day the event took place, OSHA had inspectors on the site. What they found was a health and safety program that lacked even the most basic elements required to keep employees safe from the hazards of the workplace. Altogether, Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services was charged with more than 30 violations of OSHA health and safety laws were discovered during the inspection.
EPA is also investigating the hazardous waste management practices of Steven Braithwaite’s operations.
DOT is surely also conducting an investigation into the matter as well.
Among the long list of more than 30 citations issued by OSHA for safety failures were:
• Failure to label containers of chemicals as required by the Hazard Communication Standard at 29 CFR 1910.1200(f)(6)(ii)
• Failure to have personnel on site trained in first aid and CPR as required by 29 CFR 1910.151(b)
• Failure to inspect fire extinguishers at least monthly as required by 29 CFR 1910.157(e)(2)
• Failure to train employees in the use of fire extinguishers as required by 29 CFR 1910.157(g)(1)
• Failure to keep powered industrial truck is safe operating condition as required by 29 CFR 1910.178(p)(1)
• Failure to retain placards on the railcar while it still contained hazardous residue as required by 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)
• Failure to maintain compliance with several significant provisions of the HAZWOPER Standard at three separate facilities in Omaha as required by 29 CFR 1910.120
• Failure to effectively train employees of chemical hazards to which they are exposed as required by the Hazard Communication Standard at 29 CFR 1910.1200(h)(1)
• Failure to include medical surveillance in their written respiratory protection program as required by 29 CFR 1910.134(c)(l)(ii)
• Failure to include fit test procedures in their written respiratory protection program as required by 29 CFR 1910.134(c)(l)(iii)
• Failure to include procedures for regular evaluation of the respirator plan in their written respiratory protection program as required by 29 CFR 1910.134(c)(l)(ix)
• Failure to designate a program administrator for supervision of the respiratory protection plan as required by 29 CFR 1910.134(c)(3)
• Failure to conduct medical evaluations on employees who wear respirators as required by 29 CFR 1910.134(e)(1)
• Failure to conduct fit tests on employees who wear respirators as required by 29 CFR 1910.134(f)(2)
• Failure to train employees who wear respirators as required by 29 CFR 1910.134(k)(3)
• To make things simple – they violated just about every provision of the Confined Space Entry Standards of 29 CFR 146, including training, atmospheric monitoring, and providing rescue capabilities.
The fines proposed by OSHA against Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services are:
Serious Violations $122,000
Willful Violations $700,000
Repeat Violations $140,000
Other-than-Serious Violations $1,000
Total Penalty of $963,000.
OSHA also placed the company in the agency’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program.
Questions regarding this investigation can be directed to OSHA at:
Scott Allen, 312-353-6976, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rhonda Burke, 312-353-6976, email@example.com
Words vs. Actions
As I began this article, one of the first things I did was to visit the website of Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services, www.nrcsomaha.com , to see what they had to say about themselves. It was not much of a surprise to an almost blank page with the words “Site is currently down due to maintenence. Please be patient and we will return shortly.” Please note they were in such a rush to pull the site down that they could not be bothered to spell “maintenance” correctly.
Thankfully, the Wayback Machine is still up at https://archive.org/web/ , They captured an image of the website from back in December of 2014. What I found there was interesting.
It quickly became apparent that the overall theme of the website was about money. The very first line of the homepage included the phrase “…no broker and short line fees…”. Going down the page we find:
“NRCS recognizes that money is being lost whenever railcars are not moving.”
“… (the services) will be provided within the agreed upon time or the base cleaning is free.”
“The ability to rely upon a railcar cleaning service to expertly complete their work on time, every time, is invaluable…”
“… (our switching authority) affords NRCS the ability to control railcar movement, resulting in cost savings to its clients.”
“… (NRCS can) confidently offer an ironclad money back guarantee on the base cleaning.
NRCS recognizes that clients’ money, time and reputations are on the line.”
And in a big green box in the center of the page is the Mission Statement of Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services:
“NRCS is committed to unwavering attention to detail, guaranteed service to its clients upon which they can rely and an undeviating commitment to delivering cost effective solutions that directly benefit its clients in a safe and environmentally friendly manner.”
The About Page: There is a wonderful photo showing two men suited up and getting ready to enter a railcar. The placards have been removed from the tanker, perhaps evidence of another OSHA violation. Throughout the content of the page, we see the theme of money again, as evidenced by this paragraph in which the word “cost” is used four times:
“NRCS’s reliance upon these and other time-saving equipment items reduces overhead costs. These cost reductions are enhanced by utilization of efficient best practice methodologies. The end result is the consumption of fewer man hours per railcar. Efficiency and cost reductions allow NRCS to be a cost-effective and value-added provider for its clients.”
The Cleaning Process page: This one was also interesting in the way NRCS raises high the banner of employee safety, which is apparently one big fat lie.
Quotes from this page include:
“Highly trained technicians utilized specialized equipment…”
“…cleaning services are provided by employees with experience and extensive training.”
“Each one (employees) has the certifications and qualifications that are required by OSHA, in addition to the extra training NRCS requires of its employees.”
And then came the obligatory statement of how much they care for their workers:
“NRCS’s employees, the environment, and the rail cars entrusted to them are all precious commodities. The ultimate care is taken to assure the protection of each.”
I wonder why my Braithwaite’s team of expert fabricators could not produce any of the training records and certifications for OSHA during the inspection.
I wonder what happened to the “ultimate care” on the afternoon of 14 April 2015.
The Safety & Training page: The crowning glory of the NRCS website is here. What a bunch of horseshit. I don’t think it is possible to slather it on deeper than is presented on this page:
“Deliberate and continual education is considered paramount by NRCS.”
“NRCS’s standards for required training significantly exceed the requirements set forth by OSHA.”
“Re-certifications to safety training are continual and are scheduled on an accelerated time table. This is done to ensure that every effort is used to protect all NRCS employees and to remain environmentally friendly.”
“Safety is of great importance to NRCS in every aspect of their interactions”
“Safety is first, last and always foremost from employees, to the environment, to the rail cars entrusted to NRCS. “
I wonder how Mr. Braithwaite will stand behind these deliberate falsehoods when he is called to account for the tragic and unnecessary deaths of Foulk and LaPour.
This is perhaps one of the most egregious cases of utter disregard of health and safety protocol I have every witnessed. After putting the story on my desktop and looking at it for more than a week, I finally was compelled to put this article together. The more I researched, the angrier I got. If some of my statement have been personal, forgive me, but I do not think it is entirely unjustified.
Generally speaking, Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services must face the consequences for operating a safety house of horrors. It was not that they failed to perform some obscure requirement and the deaths resulted. NCRS deliberately, willfully and with full knowledge ignored established safety rules and allowed their workers to perform an operation that directly lead to two deaths. What a disservice NRCS has done to the industry they claim to represent.
From various new reports after the explosion, I found these quotes:
Foulk’s girlfriend, meanwhile, said he “would often tell her that Nebraska Rail Car Cleaning Services was not following guidelines,”
Former employee Jacob Mack: “I didn’t feel safe – at all”
I am never in favor of shutting a business down because of the economic harm it would do to the employees there, but they should be punished to the maximum allowable amount in order to show them that endangering employees is not profitable. Essentially, the costs that should have been incurred by NRCS for training and equipment went straight into Mr. Braithwaite’s pockets. That amount and more should be removed from his personal bank accounts.
This was not an accident – It was homicide. I wish every regulatory agency and personal injury lawyer available would pound Steven Braithwaite into the sand for his nonchalance regarding the lives of his workers. In fact, taking his beloved profits away is insufficient. His callous disregard for his workers safety in the face of numerous warnings and fines from OSHA indicate that he belongs in a confined space, a jail cell, for the rest of his thoughtless and heartless life.
So here are a few observations I have regarding this whole, sad affair:
a. One news account said that monitoring of the atmospheric conditions inside the tank was not conducted continuously during the tank entry. This is such a basic requirement that the worker’s failure to do so is evidence that any training the employees did receive was not effective.
b. It would be interesting to see if the meter that was used occasionally during this operation had been recently calibrated.
c. In the OSHA report it was stated that common steel scrapers were being used inside the tank. The use of spark-proof tools in this circumstance is obviously required and it brings up the question of whether NRCS had any, even though they routinely clean tankers with flammable residual contents.
d. There was no specific mention of the PPE the workers were wearing inside the tank, but if precedent is applied, it was probably not effective in protecting the workers from the absorption hazards in the tank.
e. The OSHA report states that they were only wearing tight-fitting respirators in the confined space. In one specific and separate instance, a worker went into a tanker containing residual denatured alcohol with a mere half-face respirator. It is a wonder he came out alive.
f. Hearing conservation was not mentioned in the OSHA Notice, but I did see one news interview with a young man who worked there doing blasting inside the tanks. He was wearing a hearing aid from the damage done to his hearing.
g. Tank ventilation is always an issue with confined space work, but sometimes you just can’t get all the vapors out of the tank so that it is safe to enter. In that case, inerting the tank is the only option. The tank that exploded would have been a good candidate for that process, but I would be surprised if NRCS had that capability.
h. The photos of Foulk that were provided to the media showed him with a significant beard. Was he wearing a tight-fitting respirator with a beard in violation of OSHA regulations?
i. Personal exposure is another question that came to my mind. Some quick calculations show that the workers were exposed to chemical far in exceedance of the levels that air-purifying respirators can handle.
Drip gas contains about 2% Benzene, a known human carcinogen. The TWA for Benzene is 1.0 ppm and the LEL for drip gas is about 2%. If the meter was reading 22% of LEL, then the concentration of Benzene would have been about 88 ppm, almost 100 times the TWA. If they were wearing full-face respirators with an APF (Assigned Protection Factory) of 25, then the Maximum Use Concentration (MUC) would have been 25 ppm (MUC = APF x PEL). Because the benzene concentration was 3 times the MUC, they clearly should not have been in the tanks with tight-fitting respirators. They should have been using supplied-air respirators. Which brings up an interesting question: Does NRCS even have supplied air respirators for use when the personal exposure limits require it?
j. Lastly, I turn my attention to the culpability of GE Rail Services, who hired Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services to clean out tanker # NATX303912. This car was at the property of GE at the time of the accident. YellowPages.com showed the address of GE Railcar Services as 120 Hickory Street, Omaha, NE. This is the same address as shown on the OSHA citation for the location of the inspection.
Is there some responsibility of GE Railcar Repair for the safety of NRCS’s workers that were hired to clean out the flammable residuals from car NATX303912? That is a relatively complex question, and I will leave that to the courts to decide. But, clearly, they had the ability to stop the workers from performing the tank cleaning under such dangerous conditions. For their own protection, they should have taken a supervisory role in the operations being conducted on their site. I have not checked on it, but I certainly would not be surprised if GE Railcar Solutions and its parent corporation are facing a personal civil suit as a result of this incident. They would have been well-served by following their own words and paying “…rigorous attention to the environmental, health and safety aspects as we work on clients’ cars.” as is stated on the NRCS website.
I hope, I really hope, that this case can serve as a warning to any other companies that are playing the same dangerous game. Compliance with the regulations is not so expensive that it will break the back of your company. Adherence to standard safety protocol may, in fact, save you from ruinous fines as are proposed against Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services.