The families of two contractors killed last month at the Equistar Chemicals LP polyethylene plant in Channelview, Texas, have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Equistar and two other companies, claiming the firms knowingly allowed the men to work in unsafe conditions. The suit was filed April 7 in Harris County District Court in Houston against Equistar; Aeriform Corp. of Houston, the company that provided oxygen tanks the workers used; and Greenwade Services of Crosby, Texas, which monitors safety conditions during maintenance procedures.
Hollis B. Turner, 37, and Charles Perkins, 51, were found dead March 21 inside a chemical boiler they had been sandblasting as part of a routine cleaning, according to the plaintiffs' lawyer, Nick Nichols.
The men were working for AIS Basic, a contractor that provides scaffolding and sandblasting services to chemical companies.
Usual sandblasting procedures call for someone to stand outside the boiler to monitor the safety of those inside. At some point, Nichols alleges, the men inside lost contact with the monitor and they died due to a lack of oxygen.
Equistar, however, claims the monitor immediately called for help, which arrived within five minutes, said David Harpole, Equistar's manager of public affairs.
Results of an Equistar investigation show that Turner and Perkins died from asphyxiation. The Harris County medical examiner's office had not determined an official cause of death.
Equistar concluded there was less than 3 percent oxygen in the tanks. That figure normally should be 21 percent, coupled with 79 percent nitrogen, Harpole said.
"There was not enough oxygen in the tanks, there was too much nitrogen and that's how they perished," Nichols said.
Harpole said Equistar relies on a certificate of analysis provided by oxygen-bottle supplier Aeriform to determine that the oxygen bottles are safe.
"The tanks we received had a certificate of analysis that they had the oxygen needed to perform this procedure," he added.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration continues to investigate, he said. OSHA records show no previous citations for accidents at the Channelview plant.