Federal regulators have ordered an Illinois silicone company to pay nearly $1.6 million for a dozen willful safety violations, some of which likely contributed to a factory explosion in May that killed four workers.

In addition to the penalties, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also classified AB Specialty Silicones LLC of Waukegan, Illinois, as a “severe violator,” a determination that subjects the company to closer regulatory scrutiny and remedial measures.

The explosion occurred on May 3, 2019, when nine employees were on the premises. The blast blew out the walls and ceilings of the plant, turning it into a “shattered skeleton,” according to CBS News.

Investigations conducted by the Waukegan Fire Department and OSHA were inconclusive because the key witnesses, including two company owners, were killed in the explosion. An investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is ongoing.

OSHA’s investigations did uncover a multitude of safety problems that it categorized as “willful,” some of which may point to the cause of the deadly explosion.

According to OSHA, willful violations are the most serious violations and typically carry the highest penalties. The agency hits employers with willful violations when they knowingly disregard a safety requirement or act with plain indifference for employee safety.

OSHA investigators determined that electrical equipment in the production area of the AB Specialty Silicones plant fell below safety standards and was not approved for hazardous locations.

The company also used forklifts powered by liquid propane to haul volatile flammable liquids through areas where employees handled and processed explosive liquids and gases, creating the potential for ignition.

Additionally, the company failed to properly designate areas of the factory as hazardous, including four reactors and two emulsion tanks, OSHA said.

“Employers must employ hazard recognition to protect workers from harm, especially in high hazard industries,” said Occupational Safety and Health secretary Loren Sweatt. “By ignoring safety and health requirements, this employer created an unsafe work environment with deadly consequences.”

The massive plant explosion also triggered a lawsuit from the state. According to Rubber & Plastics News, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and State Attorney Michael G. Nerheim filed the lawsuit against AB Specialty Silicones in the Lake County, Illinois, District Court.

The complaint alleges that the blast caused an unknown amount of pollution to the land and water near the facility and seeks to hold the company responsible for environmental cleanup.

Kendall Dunson and Evan Allen, attorneys in Beasley Allen’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section, handle claims involving serious worker injury and deaths that occur on the job. They find that investigating on-the-job injuries often reveals a third-party claim against manufacturers of dangerous or defective equipment that may lack required safeguards. They would be happy to talk with you more about these types of claims, and what to look for in your investigation of what may appear to be a simple workers’ compensation claim.

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