Local News

State cites ConAgra for violations at Garner plant

Posted December 1, 2009 3:58 p.m. EST
Updated December 1, 2009 6:08 p.m. EST

The roof of a Garner food plant collapsed on June 9, 2009, following an explosion. Three workers were killed in the blast, and a contractor who suffered extensive burns died several months later.

— The state Department of Labor cited ConAgra Foods Inc. on Tuesday for 27 workplace safety violations at the Garner plant where three workers were killed in a June explosion. Regulators ordered the company to pay $134,773.

A contractor working at the plant, Energy System Analysts, was ordered to pay $58,100 for 28 safety violations.

Both companies have 15 business days to contest the findings and the fines.

The June 9 explosion at the plant, which makes Slim Jim beef jerky products, caused part of the building's roof to collapse, killing workers Barbara McLean Spears, Rachel Mae Poston Pulley and Louis Junior Watson.

Dozens of workers and contractors at the plant were sent to nearby hospitals with various injuries. Curtis Ray Poppe, who worked for Energy System Analysts, died two weeks ago after spending months at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals.

Federal investigators said they believe contractors installing a water heater vented natural gas inside the building, leading to the blast.

Labor Department inspectors said ConAgra had an inadequate emergency alarm system in the plant and didn't provide adequate training for employees working with hazardous chemicals in the plant. The company also didn't notify outside contractors about hazards in the plant, such as ammonia lines, according to the citations.

Inspectors said company managers also assisted in trying to fire up the gas-powered water heater on the morning of the explosion and never purged gas lines during the installation process in the preceding days.

ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said company officials were reviewing the citations Tuesday and couldn't comment on them.

"Since the accident, we have worked closely and fully cooperated with the agency throughout its investigation," Childs said in a statement. "As appropriate, we will follow up with the agency on any possible next steps.”

An Energy System Analysts worker opened a gas supply line 10 times on the morning of the explosion, allowing some natural gas to escape into a room filled with electrical equipment, Labor Department inspectors said. The worker should have purged the line each time, according to the citation.

The contractor also hadn't trained its foreman on handling gas and propane, according to the citation.

The Labor Department also investigated 15 other contractors who had workers at the ConAgra plant on the day of the explosion, but no safety violations were noted against any of them, officials said.

ConAgra reopened the plant in August, but because of its diminished production capacity, the company decided to lay off 300 workers. They lost their jobs last month.