State probes lab explosion | June 13, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - June 13, 2012

State probes lab explosion

by Sandy Brundage

As the state opens an independent investigation that could lead to prosecution, Membrane Technology & Research has appealed the seven citations and $55,850 in fines levied by the California Occupational Health and Safety Association (Cal-OSHA) for an accident that killed a 56-year-old scientist in Menlo Park.

On Sept. 2, Adrian Martin reportedly was adding methane to a tank containing methane, nitrogen, helium and butane when the pressurized cylinder exploded, blowing the scientist 15 feet into an adjoining laboratory and killing him. A woman standing near the door of the lab was thrown clear and survived with a damaged eardrum.

The Cal-OSHA inquiry found that the pressure in the tank reached nearly triple the rated safe level. Its pressure relief valve was set to vent only after pressure reached 3,360 psi, about 10 times as high as the cylinder could withstand.

The seven citations include six labeled as "serious." One cites the lab for not doing everything reasonably necessary to protect its employees, in this case, not noting that the tank was only rated for 300 psi.

The lab has retained attorney Jeffrey Tanenbaum of Nixon Peabody LLC. Appeal paperwork filed with Cal-OSHA cites "independent employee action" as a basis for overturning the citations. According to Cal-OSHA, five elements must be proven for the defense to be successful: 1) the employee was experienced in that particular job; 2) the lab has a safety training program; 3) the lab enforces its safety rules; 4) The lab can demonstrate a history of sanctions against employees who violate the safety rules; and 5) the employee knew what the rules were and broke them anyway.

The appeal also challenges the classification of the violations, referring to a section of the state labor code, 6432(c) that says a violation can't be rated "serious" if the employer demonstrates that it "did not know and could not, with the exercise of reasonable diligence, have known of the presence of the violation."

Mr. Tanenbaum said he could not comment while the case was active.

Meanwhile, the state Bureau of Investigations opened its own inquiry in May. The bureau looks into all deaths and serious accidents, according to Cal-OSHA representative Peter Melton, and decides whether to refer a case to a district attorney for prosecution.

Representatives from Membrane Technology, located at 1360 Willow Road, were not available for comment. The lab had no previous record of safety violations, according to OSHA.

Mr. Martin left behind a wife, Livia, and a 17-year-old daughter.


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