Local News

Duke fined for fatal steam explosion

Posted November 14, 2008

— Duke University has been fined $35,000 for safety violations cited in the wake of a steam pipe explosion that killed a maintenance worker in May.

The North Carolina Department of Labor fined the school for eight violations following the accidental death of university employee Rayford Cofer, 63.

Cofer, a master steamfitter from Franklinton, was in the mechanical room of the Levine Science Research Center when a steam line burst May 14.

An autopsy determined he died from burns to his skin and airways.

State inspectors examined Duke's campus after the incident and found eight safety violations, according to a report issued Wednesday. The violations included:

  • Having no written maintenance procedures or steam-pipe tests for employees working with the system on campus
  • Not having two easily accessible exits in case of emergency
  • Not having doors that swing outward to escape in an emergency
  • Not having warning signs posted near some steam lines
  • Having inoperable fire alarms or emergency lighting in some areas

The university said it has corrected many of the cited issues and has been working to enhance safety throughout the campus.

It has 15 business days to appeal the findings and the fine to the Labor Department or the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.


This story is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • WRAL is joe_dirt Nov 14, 2008

    If his credentials are valid as a master steamfitter/boiler operator, he was aware of most of the actual or predictable scenarios that cause failures of system components. That doesn't excuse workplace safety requirements but his experience should account for a degree of responsibility. Things go wrong and systems fail but to live as long as he did working around dangerous equipment he certainly was experienced in his trade. Even the most experienced workers occassionally drop their guard or get too comfortable around hazardous equipment. Workers can protect themselves to a degree but not always. Employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace.

    I'm so sorry his career ended in tragedy.

  • clintoflannagan Nov 14, 2008

    Actually it is very unlikely that a civil suit against Duke will come of this. Since he is an employee of Duke as a general rule his recovery is specifically limited to workers compensation which basically will pay for whatever medical bills he has and some pittance for his death.

    There's a chance that his estate could have a liability claim against some other entity like a manufacturer of one of the machines that apparently malfunctioned but lots of times there's only a remote chance of succeeding in a case like that.

  • BigBrokeBill Nov 14, 2008

    JayJay, Are you suggesting that the steamlines were not properly preheated when the main valve was opened causing a water hammer to develope which cracked a fitting allowing high pressure steam to escape into the engineering spaces? That wouldn't be pretty.

    You're right, Frizz, he should never have been working alone on that system with live steam present.

  • PirateHeist Nov 14, 2008

    Don't worry how small the fine is, I'm sure a civil suit will be coming now that Duke is proven negligent. Then hopefully Duke will be feeling it in their pocket book so they will make some changes.

  • WRAL is joe_dirt Nov 14, 2008

    That's about the same as charging Duke University .99 cents. Very effective. What is it we pay government to do for us again?

    There is much more at stake her for Duke than a mere $35K. Serious incidents are a major roadblock in Duke's ability to keep their workers' comp and liability insurance premiums low. An incident like this can dramatically increase risk with a proportional increase in ins. rates. Used to be years ago, if you had enough money, anyone would sell you insurance. In today's market, not all insurance carriers are competing for your business. As a private university, Duke isn't under the State's protective blanket as would be the case with NCSU or DOT. This is referred to as "indirect" costs. I agree, the $35K fine is pocket change to Duke but the actual cost over the long term is only the beginning of their loss.

  • ifcdirector Nov 14, 2008

    That's about the same as charging Duke University .99 cents. Very effective. What is it we pay government to do for us again?

  • JayJay Nov 14, 2008

    I think the suspicion was that the steam pipes "hammered" when the steam was turned back on. A bit of a fluke. The doors probably would not have made a difference. Had a second employee been on the scene we may well have just been hearing about two deaths instead of one. High pressure steam work is inherently dangerous.

  • ConcernedNCC Nov 14, 2008

    There's no way of telling from this what happened. I do know that the exit doors wouldn't have saved him in an accident like this.

  • WRAL is joe_dirt Nov 14, 2008


    Unfortunately, that's not how the system is set up. There will be lots of compensation from other sources but that still dowsn't excuse Duke for inadequate safety policy and procedures. It's sad it takes something like this to bring about reinforcement of existing policies.

    General workplace safety and health has gone through many changes since the Act was signed into law in 1970 and continuous quality improvement comes as a result of incidents like this. It's no concellation prize but this incident will save lives as a result of the family's sacrifice.

  • BlueSkys Nov 14, 2008

    Good that money should be gave to the family who lost their love one.