By: Roger Renstrom
February 27, 2014
A fatal accident that was the result of using a residential-grade water heater for a plastics extrusion process haunts an Emerson Electric Co. business.
Solus Industrial Innovations LLC's former plant manager Carl E. Richardson and former maintenance supervisor Roy Faulkinbury pleaded guilty on Feb. 14 to two felony violations of the California labor code. They agreed to collectively pay $450,000 to families of the victims and individually do 250 hours of community service.
If Faulkinbury and Richardson make the payments within 90 days and do one-third of the community service by Feb. 16, 2015, a judge agreed to reduce the criminal charges to misdemeanors and sentence them to probation, said Kelly Roosevelt, a deputy with the Orange County district attorney's consumer and environmental protection unit.
If not, the judge can jail each man for 90 days.
Solus Industrial moved some production to Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., from Aston, Pa., in 2007 and was in a hurry to begin production. The company purchased a water heater for $541.66 from a Lowe's home improvement store to avoid the cost and permitting requirements of a proper installation, according to the lawsuit.
Use of an industrial water heater would have required permits and the installation of a natural gas line, and it would have delayed the start of the Rancho Santa Margarita extrusion of plastic components for conveyor chains and sprockets.
Roosevelt said the defendants were responsible for removal of an automatic safety shut-off protection and installation of a temperature control device to force the heater to operate above its capacity. The heater had leaked often and blown a safety valve but was kept in service.
On March 19, 2009, an employee reported a puddle of water under the 80-gallon electric Whirlpool water heater. It exploded almost immediately after that report, at about 11:30 p.m.
Supervisors Jose Jimenez, 51, and Isidro Echeverria, 34, had responded to investigate the situation and were killed in the blast. As a result of the lawsuit, Jimenez's family will receive $135,000, and because of the younger age, Echeverria's family will get $315,000.
Shrapnel from the explosion injured a third employee. The three were among six persons on duty. For all shifts, the location employed about 80.
The tank pierced the 30-foot-high roof and landed about 25 feet from its original location. The blast hurled other equipment and materials against the concrete-block walls causing extensive damage and effectively destroying the facility, which never resumed operations.
On July 12, 2012, the district attorney's office filed a civil lawsuit against Solus, Emerson and subsidiary Emerson Power Transmission Corp.
Roosevelt said the Fourth District Court of Appeals expects to rule by March 19 to what degree the causes of action can proceed. Both the prosecutor and defendants appealed portions of an initial ruling in Orange County Superior Court.
Following the explosion, the California division of Occupational Safety and Health proposed citing the manufacturing operation for one $70,000 willful violation and five serious ones totaling $28,800. No payments have been made because the employer appealed the citations, according to division officials. The matter is pending before the California Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board.
St. Louis-based Emerson, a major power equipment manufacturer, bought Solus Industrial in December 2008.